It’s Been a While

I took a year off blogging. This wasn’t like other breaks I’ve taken from it, where I just forget to do it for two months. This was deliberate. I wanted to focus the time I had on working on my novel, and given the way life tends to squeeze writing time, I wanted to make sure I used what I had the best I could.

Given that I haven’t written anything on here for so long it means I have a years worth of reading that I can write about. So I thought I’d do a 2018 retrospective. These are some of the best books I read last year.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

I had been meaning to read this one for a long time. I kept hearing good things about it after it was nominated for the Booker prize. It has a beautifully earthy tone, but that manages to feel elevated and almost mystical in places. A gripping, nuanced story of an outside family. Probably the best book I read last year.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

One of the things I love most in my reading (and that I am constantly aspiring to in my writing) is a grounded subtlety that is quiet and personal with emotional honesty and confidence in the reader. This book is all of that. In fact, this writer is all of that. I read another of her books, Anything is Possible last year as well, and it was just as good as this one. This is a writer I will read more of.

Becoming Myself by Irvin Yalom

I have read a couple of Irvin Yalom’s psychology books before. They are made up of anecdotes taken from his life as a therapist, which tell these complex little stories of the struggles and triumphs of his clients. This book is a memoir which stood out to me for a chapter in which Yalom meets another writer, Viktor Frankl., a holocaust survivor who wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. I have had Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom side by side on my bookcase for years, and suddenly they were together on the page. Yalom’s writing is gentle and generous and insightful, and this biography was fascinating. Not sure how good it would be if you have never read any of his others books, so if you’re interested, maybe read Love’s Executioner or Creatures of a Day first.

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American, who decides to start a coffee company reintroducing coffee from Yemen to the world. He travels there to collect samples, and ends up stranded in the middle of the middle-east crisis, trying to get home with a suitcase of coffee samples under his arm. I love Dave Eggers, and I loved reading this book.

Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill

I feel like what Ryan O’Neill has done here is invent a new genre. A collection of short stories, masquerading as short biographies that are actually an interwoven, ensemble novel. Each chapter tells the story of a single Australian writer and slowly builds a cast of crack-pot, morally-ambiguous characters who criss-cross in and out of each others stories, building a rich, textured landscape, of a completely made up history of Australian literature.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

This book was a gift. Before I left my last job one of the people I worked with gave me a copy of this, saying she wanted to share a book with me that had meant a lot to her. (I had recommended The End of Vandalism to her a few months before). I haven’t read a book like this one for a long time. I read a lot of Neil Gaiman when I was younger and this reminded of him in places. Elements of speculative fiction are layered over the story of a young boy coping with the terminal illness of his mother. It has that honesty that I love in good fiction, and is raw and unyielding with it. Truly excellent.

So there you are, a handful of great books I read last year. There were others, but scrolling through my goodreads 2018 shelf, these ones stood out a little.

Incidentally, it has now been ten years since I started using goodreads, and shelving every book I read by year. I thought about stopping using it, since there is something round and satisfying about ten years worth of anything. But scrolling through my goodreads shelves is just a really pleasant way of remembering my reading. I have added a link to my goodreads on the contact page. If you use it, feel free to add me as a friend.

Another Post Where I Go On About Tom Drury

After deciding to spend the Christmas period reading The End of Vandalism again I think I can safely say that it is one of my favourite books. It’s hard to tell when you first read something if it’s a favourite or just fresh in your mind, but Tom Drury’s first novel was not only as good as I remember, it was improved by a revisit. The crafted layers of repeated motifs are invisible the first time around, but reveal themselves in unexpected ways when you come back again.

It is amazing to me how little of a novel actually sticks in your mind. I guess it shouldn’t be. 350 pages of prose can cover a lot of ground, and Tom Drury covers more than most with his rotating ensemble cast and countless walk-on bit parts. I thought I remembered it pretty well, but there was plenty that had drifted out of my mind. But the stuff that I did remember, and remember as being some of the most emotionally wrenching stuff I had ever read, was just as powerful the second time around.

Do you have to say spoiler alert for a book that is 22 years old? I’ll say it in case these first two paragraphs have inspired you to go read it. Spoiler alert, guys. Spoilers.

The section of the novel where Louise discovers that her unborn baby has died but has to go through with the birth regardless is written in the most unflinching way. I cried the first time I read it, and a little more the second. Drury’s writing style is so spare and minimal, picking out the details that really speak. The tiny nuances of the way people talk, the power of a handful of words. I mean, look at this bit.

Vandal 1

Or this bit,

Vandal 2

The book is littered with these careful little moments that reveal so much depth. The book feels airy as you are reading, but the weight it carries is astonishing. It feels like what Drury has done is curate a series of moments out of the lives of his characters, finding the poetry that rises up like an emergent property, greater than the sum of its parts, like you would expect a good novel to be. It is so hard to explain why this book is so good, there’s not a great deal of plot to hook a person with, but it’s loaded with character.

Like I said in my last post, re-reading is something I want to do more of. Recently I have been reading tons of short stories in the literary journals I am exploring and for years I tried to read as much and as broadly as possible, but going back to something that resonated so much and spending more time with it has been well worth the time, if not just for the pure love of it, but for what it gave me. I can see why some people dedicate their lives to studying a single book or a single writer. When you find something that resonates the depths that it has can seem endless, and the way it seems to change with you can feel pretty surprising. I’m not going to dedicate my life to only reading the works of Tom Drury, there’s too much else out there for me to do that, but I have no doubt I’ll be reading the other two books in the series again soon, and all of them again after that.

Lincoln in the Bardo, Toby in the Lake District

This is where I have been this week.

IMG_0638

After a very long time without a holiday we finally managed to get away and have the most perfectly tranquil few days that I think it is possible to have. It ticked all the boxes on my short list of boxes to tick. Nice coffee, nowhere to be, nowhen to be there, a good book, and a nice view.

We got out a little bit, but November in the north of England isn’t always the best getting-out conditions. We did manage a little walking, taking our inadequate footwear on an adventurous hill climb along steep ravines that eventually took us to our destination; a waterfall with a rainbow in it.

Here’s the water fall with the rainbow in it;

IMG_0640

But never mind the holiday snaps, what did I read?

I read this years Booker prize winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. This was one of the short-listed books that I wanted to read but I didn’t get around to it until after it had won. The structure of this book is astonishing. It’s like a faux montage of historical texts, snipped and bound together to create a wider view of a short period of time during the American civil war when President Lincoln’s son died. Early on there are some lovely moments when the historical texts contradict each other a little, throwing doubt of the accuracy of any of the reports that followed. The book then seems to become a charming Shakespearian tale of the ghosts that inhabit the tomb that the president’s son has been placed in. All these elements coalesce into a story about loss and grief and letting go and moving on.

The two elements, the American civil way and the grief of losing a child (as well as the grief of losing a father) come together in some brilliant scenes where the ghosts inhabit the president and we see inside his head a little, but still with the lens of doubt about the authenticity of the reports we are given. And the way the story focuses on such a short span of time and uses that to muse on a much larger historical subject is masterful. Simultaneously small and sweeping in scope. I can’t think of another book I have read that is like this one.

And reading it in such a condensed way was lovely. It’s not often you can sit and read next to a lake for hours on end. Oh go on then, one more holiday snap.

IMG_0678

Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

This week I read Bad Dreams, Tessa Hadley’s short story collection. I have been reading an awful lot of short stories lately, partly because I went on a literary journal buying spree a while ago and they have been slowly arriving in the post. But I bought Bad Dreams because Tessa Hadley judged The Bridport Prize in 2016 so I figured since she read my story I should take a look at hers too.

bad dreams

I thought Bad Dreams was absolutely brilliant. That’s why I’m writing about it here. (I don’t blog about books I don’t like, I tend to just put them away and move on.) The stories are made up of the most mundane ingredients that slowly come together to make something greater. All of her stories have a kind of airy triviality about the events and the characters, how small their lives are, how inconsequential it all seems, but then by the end of the story those trivial details have transcended and become bigger and more significant. I absolutely love how she does this. This is what realism can do so well. Taking all this stuff that is boringly familiar on the surface and contextualising it so that it seems almost magical.

A couple of the stories really stood out for me. Her Share of Sorrow is about a young girl who discovers reading, and then writing, and sets herself to writing a novel. Her family discover the novel and make fun of it a little, and so, crushed by this, she retreats and finishes it in secret. See how small that story sounds? But it evokes the private thrill of writing so perfectly that it almost has a transcendent quality.

But by far the best, for me anyway, was Silk Brocade. As soon as I finished reading it I instantly read the final few pages again. It is about two dressmakers who are hired to make a wedding dress for an old acquaintance. It about loss and change and drift and reunion in a most unexpected way. As much as I want to describe the clever, heart-breaking ending, what I think you should really do is try and read it for yourself. If you like that kind of thing. I think it is one of the best short stories I have ever read.

I enjoyed this collection of shorts so much I am certain to try one of her novels later. If I can ever make it through the mountain of short stories that I have recently acquired – made more difficult by the fact the Jeffrey Eugenides new short story collection Fresh Complaint came out recently, as well as the 50th issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, which is particularly lavish, even by their high standards. Here, look at it. Who can resist this?

mcs50

Salt Publishing

Last week on Twitter I saw that Salt Publishing were doing a call for people to buy a book directly from them using the hashtag #justonebook. I like Salt publishing a lot. They have published some fantastic books, they do an annual anthology called Best British Short Stories – which is one of my more ambitious writerly aspirations – and they are based in Cromer, which is a lovely little seaside town in Norfolk of which I have some very happy memories. A set of happy memories that includes eating Jack Daniels flavoured ice cream down by the seafront, which was either the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted, or is simply another childhood memory that nostalgia has bent out of shape.

So wanting to support a small publisher that I admire a great deal I went over to their site and started looking for something to buy. I have to be honest, it never occurred to me before to buy books directly from the publisher. Normally I would just make a point of keeping an eye out for books I want when I am in bookshops. I think it would have been pretty easy to find most of the books on Salt’s catalogue that I liked the look of in one the bookshops near where I live, but I wanted to answer their call. I had a dig through their website and found quite a few books that I fancied but in the end I went for The Book Collector by Alice Thompson

BookCollector

It is about a young woman who marries a man and have a child together and settle into a comfortable, idyllic life. She loves to read, he likes to collect books, but one day she finds a secret book of fairy tales in a safe in his study and that seems to precipitate the gradual unravelling of her mind. Seeds of doubt are thrown in and so she (and we) are unable to tell what is really going on, what is real, what is delusion. And when her husband hires a nanny to look after the child everything seems to slip further and further out of her grasp.

It is brilliantly written and completely compelling. It has a creeping darkness that constantly wrong foots you as you read. There are some clever little references to gaslights through the first half of the book that made me feel like I had figured out what was going on, but then chapters later it had me doubting myself, making me think I had read to much into an incidental detail. Is the book collector gaslighting his delicate wife, or is Alice Thompson gaslighting me? Or neither? Or both?

I had intended to finish reading it before writing this post but I still have about fifty pages to go. I was going to try to fit it in through the day but life conspired to keep me from it. Some days are like that. But I will finish it soon and then there are a number of other books that I want to read from Salt. There is The Other Word, It Whispers by Stephanie Victoire, Two Sketches of Happiness by Simon Kinch, and The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks. I actually can’t type all of the names of the ones that caught my eye because it would take too long. Just go over to Salt’s page and take a look for yourself.