There are a lot of blogs coming out now comprising ‘best of’ reading lists for 2015. For want of anything better to write, I’m going to join in. Why anyone would care about what I’ve read this year, I don’t know. Except that, one or two of my favourite writer/bloggers have introduced me to some great books in the past, so it’s possible I might do the same for someone else. You never know.
I’m not a prolific reader and am often astounded by the amount of material other people manage to get through. I read slowly and sporadically. I also forget what I’ve read, although I do try to log books on Goodreads. So, here are some books I can actually remember reading this year, the reason being that I loved them all.
Elena Ferrante, Days of Abandonment. If you want to know what my (unpublished) novel is like, in subject matter at least, this is about as close as it gets (though not that close). Mine of course is nowhere near as good. (Like, obviously). This was a revelation to me, as it appears to have been to many other people. A dark, brutal and honest account of a woman on the edge. I shall have to read a whole load more of her in 2016.
Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster. Classy. Subtle. Quiet. Moving. Someone who really understands about living.
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. A fictional account of the author’s sister’s suicide wish. Miriam Toews features on the writers’ retreat in Iceland I’ve booked to attend in April. Please, please, let me get onto one of her workshops. I think she’s fabulous.
Naomi Wood, Mrs Hemingway. This is one of those books where you just think, how? How does a writer (and such a young one too grrr) write about people from the past in a way that is so un-researchy and yet so vivid and convincing?
Villa America, Liza Klaussmann. Ditto.
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway. Having read the above, I had to read some Hemingway (I’ve only read his short stories before). Novels do date, but not so literary genius.
Hausfrau, Jill Essbaum. I read an article about the ‘domestic noir’ novel, in which this was listed as an example. I think it’s a much better novel than that rather trite sounding label implies. Another woman on the racks, this time in Switzerland. Trying to find some purpose amongst the cold landscape and her unsatisfying marriage. A very honest account of womanhood. Not self-pitying, but not pretty either.
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. One of my favourite writers. This was a departure for him, but every book is a departure for him. I love the restrained and profound quality of his writing. I struggle, however, with quest stories and mythology and this wasn’t my favourite of his books, but it still managed to cast a spell.
The Infatuations, Javier Marias. It’s fascinating how European literature, such as this and the Elena Ferrante, goes against so much instruction given to the UK creative writing student. This book, if presented to an MA workshop, would draw all manner of fire for telling not showing, for passages of description without dialogue and for a shifty point of view. It’s a dramatic tale that manages not to be told dramatically and is all the better for it.
Mr Loverman, Bernardine Evaristo. How many books have you read about a 70+ Caribbean man who lives in Hackney with his wife and is finally coming out about his lifelong relationship with another man? Thought so. Here’s one that’s witty and touching and full of great characters.
Pondlife, A Swimmer’s Journal, Al Alvarez. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but this book made me feel I should read more. Here is another ‘quiet’ book: a favourite word of mine, it seems, in relation to good literature. Ostensibly about Mr Alvarez’s year-round daily swims in Highgate and Hampstead ponds and the restorative effects of cold water, the book develops into a reflection on old age, nature, endurance and companionship. A book that seems slight on the surface, but has the power to move you deeply.
My Year with Salinger, Joanna Rakoff. This is one of those books I was directed to by another writer/blogger (thank you Julie). What a great insight into the pre-digital publishing age and the literary phenomenon that was/is JD Salinger. I loved this account of a woman setting out on her career who eschews the books of her employer’s number one client, whilst engaging in forbidden correspondence with his fans. When she does finally get around to reading Salinger, well, I won’t spoil it.
Like the Hemingway books, this inevitably led me to go back and read more Salinger. To be precise, Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey. Rakoff’s critical musings made these readings even more enjoyable. Yes, what a truly original writer, both witty and devastatingly sad, a huge empathiser with the limitations of being human.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. A non-fiction account of a man’s quest to commune with the wilderness of the Alaskan outback. This inspired my far more modest communion with the Scottish Cairngorms in my week long summer retreat.
Into Thin Air: A Personal account of the Mt Everest Disaster, Krakauer again. Simply desperate to read more in the same ilk. This charts human ambition and fallibility and its deadly consequences.
A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland. This is the book that led me, by recommendation, to Krakauer. A wonderful exploration of silence: the mythology and spirituality surrounding it; how difficult it is to obtain and the surprising and liberating effects of immersing oneself in it. Again, inspiration for my Scottish retreat.
There were a number of books I read which had received a lot of positive attention and glowing reader reviews, but which I thought were pretty awful. It would be churlish and unsporting to name them. It seems I often find myself disagreeing with common opinion, which probably doesn’t bode so well for me as a writer.
Reading a book you love, however, is a wonderful thing. Occasionally, when I hit a difficult patch in life, my reading falls by the wayside. Sometimes reading gets the happiness back. Sometimes happiness gets the reading back. So, for 2016, I’m going to wish for myself and everyone else, lots of happy reading.