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.”

Why Hamilton Is Not Just a Fad

I first heard of Hamilton three years ago, from the teenagers at my son’s drama classes. They were all excited about this new show that none of them had seen, but for which they knew the songs and lyrics. Endorsement by famous people, including the Obamas, added to the spice. Then, after the election of Donald Trump, it became a form of political activism to support this show.

The steep prices and instant sellout when the tickets were put on sale for the London show almost put me off the whole enterprise. But my teenage son looked at me pleadingly and I found some restricted-view sets that only involved selling off one arm and leg instead of my kidneys too… So I gave in to the buzz.

Then we had to wait for more than a year.

I bought the CD with the original Broadway cast. My older son and I became obsessed with it, much to the dismay of the younger son, who is not a fan of musicals. We started reading up about American history, the founding fathers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, bought the book. It became an all-consuming passion and we marvelled at the research, hard work, cleverness, passion and teamwork that went into creating the show. We worried that we were so impregnated with the recording that we would be disappointed with the new voices in the London version.

We needn’t have been.

Seeing the show onstage is an electrifying experience. Not so much because of the audience reaction – although it was wonderful to see that, alongside the elderly white people who could afford the seats there were also young people and people of all colours. It is simply even more dramatic and poignant getting caught up in the whirl of things live. I didn’t think I would cry more than once perhaps (at the death of Philip) after knowing the whole musical by heart, but seeing it performed had me in floods of tears a mere 4-5 songs in. So yes, I did embarrass my son (although I had tissues on hand).

The voices were indeed different and it took me a couple of songs to get used to it, but it then allowed me to appreciate all the nuances and differences in interpretation. For all of his Olivier award, Giles Terera was good but not as suave and extraordinary as Leslie Odom Jr. in the role of Aaron Burr. Jamael Westman is charismatic, unflappable and perhaps almost too heroic for the role of Hamilton – he certainly demonstrates why people fell in love with him, but is perhaps not as impish and nasty as I can imagine Miranda might play him. King George and Lafayette/Jefferson made the roles their own and milked them for all they were worth, providing excellent comic relief, while Laurens/Philip was very close to the Broadway original and utterly charming. My favourite was Eliza (understudy Marsha Songcombe) – who started off relatively quietly and hesitant, but just grew and grew in voice, drama and stature. She brings all that is good and loyal, beautiful and sad to the play. Her final gesture of reaching her arms out for her husband still brings tears to my eyes.

It’s not just the cleverness of the lyrics, the staging, the singalong music, the charismatic performers that makes this a night to remember. It’s not even the almost impossible blend of high drama, excitement, farce, lyrical moments and profound sadness. It is absolutely true that this breaks the mould and shows us what is possible with musicals and cast if you are audacious enough and inventive enough. But above all, like all good plays and musicals, it takes something that is particular (about a person and a time) and makes it universal. We all know that feeling of ‘running out of time’, the need to leave a legacy behind. We’ve all wondered ‘when my time is up, have I done enough?’. And Hamilton forces us to acknowledge as well that ‘you have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story’.

Hamilton London cast on opening night.

The problem now is living with having seen it. It feels like there is nothing more to look forward to. Ever.

And if you too want to see it, there are £10 tickets available for lottery.

From Lincoln in the Bardo #6degrees

Kate has another challenge for us in linking books starting from Lincoln in the Bardo this month in Six Degrees of Separation. I haven’t read the book by George Saunders yet, but I do have it lined up somewhere in the cloud waiting for my new Kindle to arrive. (Yes, I can’t find my previous one, so had to give in and order a new one)

The book famously deals with American president Abraham Lincoln and his grief at losing his son. Another American almost-president who lost a son is Alexander Hamilton and I’ve been relishing the book about the making of the stage show Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Congratulations, Lin-Manuel on the birth of your second child a couple of days ago!)

The degree to which Hamilton is viewed with envy by Aaron Burr and the way the story is narrated reminded me very much of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, where Salieri also grumbles and can’t quite believe that God wasted all his gifts on such an unworthy recipient (to his mind), yet finally realises his own mediocrity.

There are plenty of books with musical connections, but one which particularly stuck with me in recent years was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, showing three key moments in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his fear of the Soviet regime and his giving in to it (but forever haunted by that).

Of course, the book about censorship and destruction of culture is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which terrified me when I first read it as a child. Perhaps because I was living in conditions which reminded me a bit of those extremes. Ah, those photocopied forbidden books, and badly dubbed bootlegged copies of forbidden films!

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer also has a number in its title and is a tense thriller set in one of my favourite places on earth, Cape Town, and one of my favourite scruffy but reliable detectives, Benny Griessel. Not perhaps a glowing advertisement for visiting South Africa (as a young American tourist is hunted through the streets of the city), but a great sense of atmosphere.

For my final link, I will stick to another South African writer who I think deserves to be far, far better known, but whose downfall is perhaps that she writes across all genres. Lauren Beukes is one of the most creative minds in modern fiction and has achieved some recognition for The Shining Girls about a time-travelling serial killer (now that I’ve read Hawksmoor, it reminds me a little of that). But I would like to link here an earlier book of hers, Moxyland, a political thriller about race, discrimination and being controlled by technology.

So from 19th and 18th century America to Vienna to the Soviet Union and South Africa, as well as a couple of dystopian unnamed societies. Where will your bookish travels take you this month?