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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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

 

#6degrees April: From Memoirs of a Geisha to…

Only just got back from holiday, but I really want to participate in one of my favourite monthly memes: the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate in Kew

This month’s starting point is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, which I read while I was studying Japanese at university, so I was really snobbish and dismissive about it at the time. There is an element of exotification the Oriental Other and a strain of soap opera about it which still doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s been a gateway to Japanese culture and literature for many, many people. Incidentally, if you are looking for a more honest account of life as a geisha in post-war Japan, Iwasaki Mineko (the geisha whom the author based the book on) wrote her side of the story in her autobiography Geisha of Gion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another book that casts a non-judgemental look upon what some call the ‘oldest profession in the world’, but without the glamour and rigid rules that have been associated with it in Japan, is G. B. Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s ProfessionHow do you come to terms with your mother being a former prostitute and now a brothel madam, when her money offered you a comfortable lifestyle and supported you through your studies? Well, although I am not a fan of prostitution, I certainly don’t blame women for it, so I think both Shaw and I disapprove of the self-righteous daughter’s shock and rejection of her mother’s way of life.

The mother-daughter relationship is such a rich source of fiction and memoir, so it was quite hard to make a choice for my next link, but Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain is a brilliant story about an ungrateful daughter whose mother has made far too many sacrifices for her. The film version is (dare I say it?) far better though (and I don’t often say that), with Joan Crawford being absolutely devastating in it.

 

One of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject of divorce and how to survive a cheating spouse is a volume of poetry. Sharon Old’s Stag’s Leap is ferociously honest, at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, chronicling the end of a marriage from anger, disbelief, grief to final acceptance and moving on.

…and I saw, again, how blessed my life has been,

first, to have been able to love,

then, to have the parting now behind me,,

and not have lost him when the kids were young,

and the kids now not at all to have lost him,

and not to have lost him when he loved me, and not to have

lost someone who could have loved me for life.

From a leap to a jump, Austin Ratner’s The Jump Artist is a novel/biography of the photographer Philippe Halsman, born in a Latvian Jewish family, accused of murdering his father in 1928 and freed after numerous appeals by friends such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and others. He lived and worked in Paris until France was invaded by the Germans, then moved to the States. He became famous as a portrait photographer who asked many of his subjects to jump, because ‘when you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.’

One of the people Halsman photographed jumping is Stanley Hyman, Shirley Jackson’s husband. In the thoughtful biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, we read that in the first take Hyman jumped so high that the frame only captured his feet. Halsman did not expect a sedentary scholar to be so competitive – and the image he did finally capture shows a person so self-absorbed and demanding (of himself and others), that it does indeed give us an insight into the tough-emotionally-yet-satisfying-intellectually marriage Shirley Jackson must have had with him.

For once, I have stayed largely within the English-speaking realm this month, and on the verge of biographies/real life stories. Where do your Six Degrees take you?

 

 

 

 

 

Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson has always been one of my favourite writers, although I had only read some of her short stories and her two most famous novels before last year. I now want to read pretty much everything she wrote, even her lighter pieces about being a mother and housewife, and this is in no small part thanks to this magnificent, well-researched and sensitive biography written by Ruth Franklin.

I haven’t quite finished reading this yet, but I’ve been reading it everywhere: during my commute, during my lunch break, in bed and any spare minute, as eagerly as if it were one of my most exciting crime novels. It is fluently written and very accessible despite the innumerable minute details. Yet, at the same time, it is quite sad and ‘haunting.’

Just like I used to imagine parallels between Sylvia Plath and myself when I was a self-dramatising teenager, I now see some similarities between Shirley Jackson and myself as I approach the age at which she died. Needless to say, Shirley outranks me in every category. It’s like a larger than life version of my pallid little life.

Domineering and overly critical mother? Check.

Feeling like an outsider at school because of a family move? Check.

Prone to anxiety and depression? Marrying a clever man because of his brains but then growing to hate him because of  his lack of kindness? Unexpectedly enjoying being a mother but resenting the time it takes away from writing? Enjoying one’s food and putting on weight? Check, check, check.

Now I just wish I could concentrate on my work and write at least a tenth as well as her. That economy of style, every sentence perfectly crafted. That subtle double meaning throughout most of her work. The never-quite-explained ending. Motivations left open to interpretation. The memorable characters. But she wrote and wrote and submitted and got rejected many, many times before she found success. Even when she started selling well, she was probably misinterpreted and misunderstood, as she was rather ahead of her time, as well as of her time (which her biographer demonstrates rather well).

I wrote about rereading Shirley Jackson for Crime Fiction Lover. And I am curious (and rather nervous) about the upcoming film of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But if you are a fan of her writing, then this biography is a superb read.

Topple over, you charming little TBR pile…

Well, yes, thank you very much for asking, my TBR pile is nice and healthy. Growing taller by the day. It’s such a charming creature, in fact, that I cannot help giving it some delicious tidbits although I know it should go on a diet.

So this is what I’ve been feeding the greedy little creature lately:

Geneva-related chocolates

I bought one of Kathleen Jamie‘s older collection of poems The Tree House in preparation for the masterclass in Geneva. Then I made the fatal mistake (or maybe it was deliberate?) of arranging to meet my friend at the well-stocked Payot bookshop at the railway station and indulged in two Swiss Romande women writers I have heard of, but never read: Alice Rivaz – a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir and equally feminist, with a collection of short stories entitled Sans alcool (Without alcohol); Pascale Kramer’s L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Relentless Brutality of Awakening) – prize-winning contemporary author with a novel about an expat spouse trying to make sense of motherhood and living abroad in California. Last but not least, I also have a copy of Offshoots 14, the literary journal published every two years by Geneva Writers Group. This edition was edited by Patti Marxsen and I am delighted to have a poem included in it.

Blogger Delights

From the Pandora’s box that is reading other people’s book blogs, I garnered an old copy of Letters from England by Karel Čapek, one of the foremost Czech writers.  Emma from Book Around recommended it as a delightful light read and how right she was! Although it is set in the 1920s, it describes many of the things which puzzles us foreigners about the UK (he also visited Scotland, Wales and Ireland, not just England) even now – and all done with great charm and affection (plus his own illustrations). Kaggsy and Simon Thomas also read this and really enjoyed it.

I can’t remember who mentioned Jonas Lüscher – it could have been Shigekuni, who is my source of wisdom in all things German language, or someone linking up to German Literature Month. Lüscher is a Swiss German writer who won the Swiss Book Prize this year for his second novel Kraft. However, I decided to get his first novel Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), about privileged English bankers and a Swiss trust fund man finding themselves in the middle of a financial crisis in the Tunisian desert.

Last but not least, I am a great Shirley Jackson fan and a kind soul on Twitter told me that the excellent recent biography Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin is now out in paperback, so it seemed like the perfect Christmas present for myself.

I Spy With My Little Eye…

I came across these books on the shelves of libraries.

The first one was at Ty Newydd by Welsh author Stuart Evans: The Caves of Alienation. I started reading it there and found it so enticing that I had to buy my own copy (not at all easy to find, incidentally). It’s about a well-known writer, the forces that shaped him, his controversial life and why he comes to a sticky end on an isolated Welsh island. It is very funny and clever, told from a variety of viewpoints (friends, lovers, teachers, documentaries, critics, biographers etc.).

Finally, I saw this children’s book at my local library and just couldn’t resist as a cat-lover. His Royal Whiskers by Sam Gayton is about the heir of the Petrossian Empire, Prince Alexander, who miraculously gets transformed into a fluffy-wuffy kitten… I don’t know if my children will read this – they might be too old for it – but I certainly will! And this proves why open shelf libraries are so essential: you find things you didn’t even know you were looking for. It jolts you out of your everyday and wearisome rote.

Now, greedy little monster, do behave and join your companions over there to digest your food on the night-table!

It is so nice to have a bedroom and two night-tables all to yourself. I have a set of crime fiction books and poetry on the right hand side, and the current books plus library books on the left hand side. These neat little skyscrapers are not so popular with Zoe, who tries to balance precariously on them as she joins me for some evening reading. Maybe she is jealous that the TBR pile gets fed more frequently than she does (or so she thinks). Maybe some day she will learn to jump up at the foot of the bed instead…