Favourite Reads of the Year

So we’ve finally reached the last couple of days of a busy, tiring, troubled year. May 2019 be merciful and kind and offer plenty of good reading at least, to distract us from the state of the world!

I’ve tried to hold off until now before making my ‘best of’ list, just in case some really good books that I read in December outweigh and outdazzle all of the others. In actual fact, only two of the December titles were contenders: two books about the war in Yugoslavia.

This is not a Top Ten or Top Twenty or any other systematic way of making a list. It’s simply a listing of all the books that really stood out and a brief quote or explanation to show why.

Library designed for Andrew Solomon, from Architectural Digest. I think that’s roughly the amount of shelf space I need.

Most Pleasant New Author Discovery

Cesar Aira: The Lime Tree

How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself… I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…


Book I Was Most Obsessive About for a While

Lin Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton The Revolution

Between Christmas 2017 and the time we went to see the Hamilton musical in April 2018, I had the soundtrack playing on repeat every single day, and these witty footnotes to the libretto and additional background on how the show came about was just what I needed. (Although I ostensibly bought the book for my son.)

Best Rediscovered Classic

J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country

I believe I can call this one a classic, although it was only written in the 1980s. Set in the 1920s, it has a very restrained, interwar novel feel about it, with a great deal of respect but no mawkish sentimentality for those who’d experienced the Great War. Also, a story of yearning rather than satisfaction, which reminded me of Brief Encounter.

Best Suspense Novel

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

To my complete surprise, it was not a crime novel which had me almost covering my eyes with fear and reading breathlessly, as if by putting this book down, I could endanger the characters in it, but this small, short story of a frustrated mother and a neglected boy on his birthday.

Best Biography

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life

Not that I read an awful lot of biographies this year, but this one would stand out any year.

Best Political Rallying Call

James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Best Regional Curiosity

Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods

Social and class differences, urban vs. countryside contrasts, and the whole atmosphere of Vienna in the 1920s form the backdrop for this not necessarily terribly original story of love, envy, greed, betrayal, disappointment, but which rises to the universality of human experience like Greek drama.

Most Recognisable Situation

Sarah Moss: Night Waking

Scratch a little deeper beneath the amusing surface of modern family life with lively children and not-quite-there husbands, and you get something much deeper: the tension between academia (or any work involving thought and creativity) and motherhood, tensions within a couple, gender inequalities, class and culture differences.

Most Inspiring

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922

Because she continued writing even in the direst of circumstances. [I chose the pseudonym Marina partly as an ‘homage’ to her.]

Best Escapism

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland

Because it’s snort-out-loud funny, in the whole Fargo back comedy school of writing which I love. Speaking of which, Antti also features in the list below.

Best Crime Fiction

I had to choose my Top 5 Crime Fiction picks of the year for Crime Fiction Lover. Spoiler alert: one of them wasn’t fiction and one of them wasn’t a novel.

Best Book About the Yugoslav War

A topic that I will always, always find fascinating and emotional, so I saw a play and read two books about it this year. My favourite of those is probably Ivana Bodrožić: The Hotel Tito, because it is both a coming of age novel, as well as the story of displaced children.

Best Reread

Two compete for this category and they both still felt chillingly relevant today:

Tana French: Broken Harbour

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Most Heartbreaking

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité

Olmi had already destroyed me with her piercing understanding of mother/child relationships, with all of its tender but also dysfunctional potential, in her masterpiece Beside the Sea. In this novel she returns to this theme, with a mother who is a housekeeper in a posh Parisian apartment with largely absent owners, and her lonely son who is being bullied at school.

Penelope Mortimer: The Pumpkin Eater

This story of an unravelling marriage and mother is just the right combination of funny, ironic, detached, cruel and devastating. A tour de force, hard to believe it was published in 1962, it still feels so modern. You might also want to read this poignant article about Mortimer’s marriage and life. “The outside world identified me as ‘ex-wife of John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater’ [in that order]—accurate as far as it went, but to me unrecognisable.”

Advertisements

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

 

Still Learning How to Vlog – Book Haul 12th May

It’s been three months since I last attempted to vlog, and this time I’ve learnt to use some video editing software. Alas, it’s still a vertical learning curve for me, so it took me far longer than mere writing of a blog post would have done. Plus the result is somewhat overenthusiastic cutting and transitioning, while my rough and ready make-up less appearance is explained by a migraine. Luckily, I am not vain at all in my old age! And too time-poor to make another, better version of the video! All of you regular readers and lovely bloggers get a bit of a mention here, as it’s thanks to you that I am spending ALL my money on books.

April Has Ended: Reading Summary

12 books, 8 countries, 5 women writers, 4 translated books – that is the summary for April 2018. It’s been a good month, with only 1 DNF (Brian Aldiss in non sci-fi mode) and no average reads at all! Perhaps I am getting better at picking books, thanks to all the great recommendations I get from your blogs.

I’ve already mentioned five thrilling crime novels that I read in a row and I had another excellent one to add to that list, although I don’t really consider it crime fiction, namely Sébastien Japrisot’s One Deadly Summer, transl. Alan Sheridan. This last one builds tension up gradually but is quite explosive in subject matter and characterisation. The textbook shifts in points of view show us how much more complex everything is than it first appears. A masterclass in slow-burn, simmering, sultry drama, like the land before a thunderstorm.

The other two books in translation I read were Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, transl. Geraldine Harcourt, and Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (courtesy of Asymptote Book Club). There are some similarities between the two books: both are narrated by a reasonably self-centred person who is somehow stuck in a groove or on the brink of an abyss and is trying to find themselves again, partly with the help (sometimes with the hindrance) of a child. Of course, in Territory of Light it is a young mother on the cusp of divorce, while in Trick it is an elderly artistic grandfather. Both of these deserve a more detailed review – if I get round to it.

Two other books were at least partially set abroad, although written in English. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London still sounds uncomfortably current, while Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You sounds like it should be set in the 19th century, but is unfortunately something which can be seen in contemporary India still (and not only there). A well-educated, artistic and academic young woman is seduced by the intellect of a university professor and marries him, but gradually has all ambition, hope and trust crushed out of her through physical and mental violence. He also seeks to justify his brutality through his socialist ideology, which leads to some horrifying yet funny statements. It is a story which has been told before, but the style is original and the emotions raw. I’ve had this book for a long time, since Naomi Frisby recommended it, but it is now shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in Fiction.

The final book also deserves a more extensive review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps I will have time to do a vlog review soon for those I haven’t reviewed yet.

If you promise not to laugh, I promise to turn a new leaf in May and not leave it so long after reading a book before I review it. Also, to restart the submission game. Also, to revitalise my #EU27Project, as time is running out…

 

April #DavidBowieBookClub: George Orwell

Judging from David Bowie’s list of favourite books, I suspect he was not only a voracious reader but also very interested in issues of social justice and equality. After James Baldwin in February, April’s book club choice was Orwell’s seminal study of poverty Down and Out in Paris and London. A reread for me and one that I very much enjoyed. And yet another reason to love David Bowie.

Unlike more recent works in this area (very much worth reading too: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America or Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain), this is not a journalist going undercover to research poverty, but an actual memoir of a certain period in Orwell’s life, so more similar to Linda Turado’s memoir Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.

Working as a dishwasher in the Parisian kitchens (the lowest of the low in the hospitality industry hierarchy) to pay his rent, often going hungry, Orwell not only shares his personal story, but also the stories, hopes and disappointments of the people he meets along the way. This compassion and empathy for others shines through in his work, even when we flinch at some of the anti-semitic terms he uses. However, reading more carefully, this appears to reflect the common attitude at the time (he quotes others making these statements, for instance the joke about ‘Trust a snake before you trust a Jew. Trust a Jew before you trust a Greek. And trust any of those before you trust an Armenian’). Perhaps he is presenting these statements as so much rope for those speaking to hang themselves with. Or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking and he was a child of his time, although far more progressive than most.

In the second part of the book, he is living in homeless shelters in London and speaking to tramps, who had previously been misrepresented in literature. Orwell doesn’t make them stock figures of fun or sentimentalise them (the tramp with the heart of gold), like Dickens is prone to do. He does not see himself as superior or more deserving in any way. He gives them dignity and respect by listening to them and by telling their stories, in clear and fresh language that doesn’t sound at all as if it were written nearly 80 years ago.

The comparisons between squalor in Paris and in London are interesting as well: there are similarities but also differences. There are jobs in Paris, but they are exploitative ones with long hours, while in London it seemed easier to end up on the street. The poor were mainly foreign-born in Paris, while the London ones were natives. Of course, that was all about to change.

It is tempting to wonder what Orwell would have written if he had been living today. And to wonder why we don’t have many journalists writing today, willing to listen, understand, write in depth. Or is it that we don’t have people willing to listen and read?

 

 

Books Set in Paris

The holidays are coming up and we are planning a trip to Paris – albeit much shorter than we had hoped for! With three days less than we had originally planned, this has meant giving up on visits to the Louvre or Versailles, but it does mean that it leaves us something to do on our next trip to this wonderful city.

SacreCoeur1In preparation, of course, I’ve been reading (or remembering) some of my favourite books set in Paris.

Daniel Pennac: La Feé Carabine (The Fairy Gunmother)

Set in the lively immigrant and working-class community of Belleville, this is one of the funniest and most macabre installments in Pennac’s saga of the Malausséne family, place of refuge for numerous children, drug-addled grandpas and epileptic dog.

Paul Berna: Le Cheval Sans Tête (The Headless Horse)

A children’s classic, set in a deprived post-war Parisian banlieue bordered by railway lines, this features a gang of street children whose pride and joy is their headless wooden horse on wheels, which they use to careen down the cobbled alleyways. Then some real-life criminals get involved, but nothing daunts the kids, especially not one of my favourite female protagonists ever, tough Marion, the ‘girl with the dogs’.

FranSacreCoeur2çoise Sagan: Aimez-Vous Brahms? (Do You Like Brahms?)

The title comes from the question a young man asks an older but still attractive woman, and it marks the start of a real Parisian love story. Bittersweet, with lots of meetings and discussions in cafés and galleries, concert-halls and rain-soaked streets.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

The quintessential guide for Americans in Paris. Hemingway captures the exuberance and sheer love of life, as well as the rivalries and cattiness of that period, 1920s Paris. For the other side of the story, read Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’, for Hemingway’s first wife’s account of the same events.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

Not strictly speaking set in Paris, it nevertheless follows the fortunes of those who have had to flee from Paris following the Nazi occupation. Written with surprising maturity and reflection, this novel is particularly poignant when we bear in mind that it was written in the midst of the terrifying events which led to Némirovsky’s arrest, deportation and death in concentration camp in 1942.

MontmartreViewFred Vargas: Pars vite, reviens tard  (Have Mercy on Us All)

Many of Vargas’ crime novels are set in Paris, but this is the most memorable of them all, featuring the uncoventional Commissaire Adamsberg, but also incongruent phenomena such as a town-crier in modern-day Parisian squares, sinister cryptic messages and a possible revival of the bubonic plague.

Victor Hugo: Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame)

A much more tragic and ambiguous story of unrequited love and the plight of outsiders than the Disney version will have you believe, this is above all a love story for the cathedral itself, which Hugo thought the French were in danger of destroying to make way for the modernisation of Paris, and a panoramic view of the entire history of Paris.

TuileriesGeorge Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Based partly on his own experiences of working as a dishwasher in Parisian restaurants, the first half of the book recounts a gradual descent into poverty and hopelessness in the Paris of the late 1920s. This is the darker side of the gilded ‘expats in Paris in the coin of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and still remarkably accurate for low-paid workers today: ‘If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.’

Cara Black: Murder in the Marais

For a lighter, more enjoyable read, this is the first (and still one of my favourites) in the long-running Aimée Leduc crime series set in different quarters of Paris. Always based on a real-life event, the books show a profound love for the streets, food, sights and people of Paris, plus they feature a resilient, resourceful and very chic young heroine with a penchant for getting into trouble. What more could you want?

ParisMetroSimone de Beauvoir: Memoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)

The first part of de Beauvoir’s autobiography, it is of course primarily concerned with her intellectual and emotional awakening as a child and teenager, but it also gives an intriguing picture of Parisian society at the beginning of the 20th century: its snobbery and limitations, the consequences of a lack of dowry for girls, the impact of Catholicism on French education. The friendship with the beautiful, irrepressible Zaza (and her tragic end) haunted me for years.

There are so many more I could have added to this list. It seems that Paris is one of those cities which endlessly inspires writers. What other books set in Paris have you loved?