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.”

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October 2018 Wrap-Up

This was a month of two halves: a rather humdrum, exhausting first half despite many cultural events, and a relaxing second half spent on holiday. Sadly, neither of the two halves did wonders for my reading: I was either too tired (first part) or too busy sightseeing and talking to people (second part) to read as much as I had planned.

I read no more than eight books, of which three were what one might call compulosry, i.e. for review for Crime Fiction Lover. Only two of them were in translation, and only two of them were by male authors.

Here are the books that I did manage to finish this October:

Sarah Moss: The Tidal Zone Planning to write a longer blog post on the writing and themes of Sarah Moss, so this will be an ongoing project over the next couple of months, to either read or reread each of her books.

Penelope Mortimer: The Pumpkin Eater – as part of the NYRB Fortnight and to fuel my ongoing fascination with mental health

Margaret Millar: Vanish in an Instant – she is a consistently good author of psychological thrillers, always a pleasure to read and reread her

Alex Beer: The Second Rider – translated  by Tim Mohr. A convoluted crime novel set in the poverty-stricken, decaying Vienna following the First World War, tremendously atmospheric. Review to follow on CFL.

Helen Jukes: A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings  I’ve always been obsessed with beekeeping, ever since my great-uncle used to take me as a child to see his hives. This book is more of a personal memoir and enquiry into historical traditions and the folklore of beekeeping. It is also a description of how a human heart can be opened and become receptive to love more generally through the love of bees. Well-written and very enjoyable if you are at all interested in bees.

Murakami Haruki: Killing Commendatore  A whopper of a novel, which I read in just one weekend. I had a bit of a nostalgic fit about Murakami, whom I used to enjoy reading when I was younger, but who has impressed me less in recent years. While this was not entirely a return to form (far too long and repetitive, could have done with judicious editing), it was fun to read, or else I may be influenced by the Don Giovanni and many other cultural references.

Lisa Gabriele: The Winters  The book started well enough as an ingenious retelling of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, with the Mrs Danvers character transformed into a sulky and vicious teenager. Sadly, I felt it became a bit too predictable at the end, with not that much to distinguish it from the current crop of domestic thrillers. Full review to follow on CFL.

JS Fletcher: The Middle Temple Murder  An early crime novel to while away the evenings on holiday. It does show its age a little, but is nevertheless an enjoyable study of journalistic flair, fraud and courtroom shenanigans.

I’ve got stuck in a few books while on holiday, browsing through my parents’ bookshelves.  And bought far too many, causing my children to exclaim: ‘Can you never enter a bookshop and come out empty-handed?’ (I will do a separate post on new acquisitions, as I’d also ordered a fair few, which all arrived while I was away). Predictable consequence: I had to pay for the few additional kilograms of luggage (not just books, but also honey, jam, wine and quinces – the usual stuff that people bring back from home, right?)

Plans for November include of course German Literature Month. I’ve got 5 books ready and waiting on my bedside table, so all I can do is hope that I will get round to reading as many of those as possible.

World Mental Health Day: Mental Health in Fiction

Today is World Mental Health Day. Call me morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by mental health issues both in real life and in fiction. I seem to have quite a few friends with different mental health conditions, have suffered from depression on-and-off myself and have always read research papers on the topic. For a while, I was tempted to become a psychiatrist, except I couldn’t face going for so many years to medical school.

I find the self-help books often surprisingly unhelpful, and it’s a bit hit and miss with memoirs. I appreciate the honesty and find them inspiring in small doses. But, somehow, fiction describes it best – and there certainly is no shortage of such fictional treatments (pardon the pun). From Dostoevsky’s Idiot (who really only suffers from epilepsy and a good heart) to that well-known Victorian disease, hysteria in women, in The Yellow Wallpaper, from the graphic descriptions of electro-shock therapy in The Bell Jar to the horrific wards in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it seems that we are endlessly fascinated by the unpredictability of the human mind.

Now that I’m out of the danger zone myself, I’ve read more books on this topic in recent months. Books that I might have avoided 18 months ago. Although never explicitly diagnosed, in Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill we probably encounter (spoiler alert!) schizophrenia or paranoia, and various other conditions in the secondary characters. Meanwhile, Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen describes a horrific slo-mo fall into depression and self-destruction – exact diagnosis is not always possible or useful.

The most recent book I read on this topic also has a woman struggling with mental health issues (in all three of these books, it is the woman who suffers – hmmm), namely The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer. This was also my contribution to the #NYRBFortnight. [There is another excellent book published by NYRB which relates to this subject and which I might tackle next: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, a non-fiction book by psychologist Milton Rokeach, who brought together three paranoid schizophrenics who each believed they were Jesus Christ.]

The unnamed narrator of the the Mortimer novel (or named only as Mrs Armitage, thus being denied of any identity of her own that does not relate to hear role as daughter, mother or wife) is a woman who can’t stop getting married and having children. We never quite find out the exact number of her brood, nor any of their names, except for the oldest daughter Dinah. We do know that she is in love or believes she is in love with Jake, her current (fourth) husband, who has become a successful and well-paid film director. But clearly there is something missing in her life, a gap that she tries to fill through babies, although she is somewhat ambivalent about them once they are there. They tear her apart with their ceaseless demands, yet she clearly would do anything for them.

She sees a therapist but finds it less than useful (he wants to talk about her previous husbands and her father, which she doesn’t believe to be relevant). Most of the book is constructed on dialogue, which prove to be hugely revealing of character.


“Do you like children, Mrs. Armitage?”
“How can I answer such a question?”
“Could it be a question that you don’t wish to answer?”
“I thought I was supposed to lie on a couch and you wouldn’t say a word. It’s like the inquisition or something. Are you trying to make me feel I’m wrong? Because I do that for myself.”
“Do you think it would be wrong not to like children?”
“I don’t know. Yes. Yes, I think so.”
“Why?”
“Because children don’t do you any harm.”

Except, of course, indirectly they do. A year before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, Mrs Armitage expresses all the boredom and frustration, being slowly stifled by domesticity and colluding (sometimes quite happily, sometimes feeling she has no choice) in her own oppression. She is given some ‘happy pills’ but still has a breakdown in the linen department at Harrods. Her husband, the insufferably self-absorbed Jake, convinces her to have an abortion and sterilisation, but she discovers almost immediately afterwards that he has been having an affair with an actress. This was one of the most angry and poignant parts of the story and I was devastated to hear that it was autobiographical. But with what admirable control Mortimer takes real life and transforms it into fiction!

Penelope Mortimer, from the National Portrait Gallery.

This all sounds terribly depressing, but the book refuses to be self-indulgent and self-pitying. Instead, it is just the right proportion of fierce and funny, ironic and devastating. Reading it can feel a bit surreal, particularly at the beginning, when you wonder just why the heroine makes so many marriages and children. I particularly enjoyed the  pitch-perfect non sequiturs, whenever Mrs Armitage replies to anyone. She refuses to allow herself to be defined or questioned or pinned down by her victim. She refuses to be a victim, although she sometimes seems in danger of getting crushed by raw emotions. Her revenge is often sly, indirect, simply by ridiculing the men in her life. A woman’s weapons at a time when there were few other weapons available. But at other times, she explicitly calls out for women to rebel… although that letter (significantly) never gets sent. Still, this passage resonated particularly at this moment in time:

You have a vote, Mrs Evans. Now, why don’t you take advantage of it? I have a vote. Really, anyone would think that the emancipation of women had never happened. Dear Mrs Evans, let us march together to our local headquarters and protest in no uncertain terms. Let us put forward our proposals, compile our facts, present our case, demand our rights. The men – they are logical, brave, humanitarian, creative, heroic – the men are sneering at us. How the insults fly. You hear what they are saying, as we run the gauntlet between womb and tomb? ‘Stop trying to be a man! Stop being such a bloody woman! You’re too strong! you’re too weak! Get out! Come back…’ When we were young, we said the hell with it and used our breasts as shields. But the tears fall so easy when they take away love.

Peter Finch kisses Anne Bancroft on the forehead in a scene from the film ‘The Pumpkin Eater’, 1964. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

If this be insanity, then perhaps all women (at that time) were insane. To me, it seems like a perfectly reasonable response to difficult external circumstances. Yet, although it encapsulates a certain time period, it also feels very modern (and also quite American, so that I often was startled when I came across references to London in the text). Perhaps I say American because it reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s home life. I think the two of them would have got along very well.