I can’t believe how long it has been since my last post but there you go. My new year’s resolution is to do so regularly – so here goes. I was busy most of the year so did not do as much reading as normal (as well as neglecting this blog). There were three stand out novels:
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. This was the most exquisite book. Poetic writing. About grief, fathers and sons, dealing with loss. Comprehension comes slowly but it all comes together beautifully. I loved this book.
I am uncertain whether I have read my next favourite book of the year previously; some of it seemed familiar, but if so it was a long time ago and much was forgotten. I certainly enjoyed reading it as though for the first time. I came upon this lovely edition in The Known World in Sturt Street, Ballarat; a beautiful bookstore that’s closing down in February more’s the pity.
The Mandarins by Simone De Beauvior remains fresh and relevant and stimulating as if written last year. I loved everything about it. The language, the polemics, the evocation of the age, the complexity of the characters and and the descriptions of the places where they live and travel. IF you’ve never read it, or did so a long time ago grab a copy and enjoy.
My next favourite is another oldy but a goody.
South Riding by Winifred Holtby was recommended by a friend because I was working in local government. It does reference local political manoeuvres and the characters are on the local council but that is only a part of the story. The characters are so strongly realised but through their words and actions rather than being described. And their natures and connections are revealed slowly over the course of the action. I enjoyed it all. Here
is a recent account of her life published in the Guardian. She sounds wonderful.
Later in the year, after some disappointing reads (see below) I discovered some older women writers I have been meaning to read for ages and loved them. They are all very small but beautifully written and with a real bite underneath the seemingly gentle observation of the daily lives of ordinary men and women. First up, three by Elizabeth Taylor who I have often heard described as a wonderful writer but who, until now, I have not read.
My favourite, of three, was At Mrs Lippincote’s. You don’t really understand what this story is about until very near the end but the characters and their relationships draw you in. You’re not sure exactly what their circumstances are but you care about what happens to them – especially the woman at the centre of it all who is not Mrs Lippincote. Set in London during the second world war it gives a real sense of that time and how people’s normal sense of self is affected – even those not in the front line. Very affecting. I also read two others by the same author both of which I enjoyed, but not to the same extent. Angel is about a self made author who is completely without empathy for those around her. A monstrous (and slightly unbelievable) character. But you keep reading to see what happens to her and those who are drawn into her orbit. In A Summer Season was a strange little book. About a woman who, widowed, takes up with a most unsuitable fellow – a man younger than herself and a complete wastrel. Her willingness to forego friends and even the needs of her children in exchange for a sexually charged life is described artfully. The ending is a wrapped up a bit too neatly but overall an interesting idea delicately portrayed.
In a similar vein I enjoyed A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark. This was a great story which really captured my imagination – I remembered it for a long time after. About a motley crew of characters who live together in a boarding house in Kensington. The heroine is a real sleeper – her true character not really revealed until late in the piece. Everyone is drawn very vividly and the story rattles along. The publishing industry, and those who are attracted to it, are skewered nicely. A really entertaining romp.
I loved all of these books and while many of them are available on Amazon I’ll be on the look-out for them whenever I visit a second hand book store.
I also read two books by Simon Mawer set in World War 2 about a woman parachuted into France from England to undertake espionage activities. Easy reading. I enjoyed the second one better than the first.
I was disappointed with some early reading, chosen from Best Book lists from 2015.
First up was spill simmer falter wither by Sara Baume. This was beautifully written – almost poetic in its language, so was lovely to read. But to my mind the story failed to convince. It started out okay. A desperate road trip embarked upon by a fragile figure of a man and his recently acquired mongrel dog. We learn the back story along the way accompanied by vivid descriptions of the landscape through which they travel. The four words in the title are the names of the seasons in Irish dialect and we experience them all. By winter the story reaches its crescendo and I felt the whole thing collapsed under its own weight. Still, beautiful writing.
I was similarly disappointed with The Green Road by Anne Enright (another dysfunctional Irish family) and with Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (one of Barak Obama’s best books in 2015 about a dysfunctional marriage as seen first by the husband and then from the wife’s point of view – neither account ringing true). I was also not convinced by the very strongly recommended The Door by Magda Szabo (beautiful writing but I was very disappointed with what was finally revealed behind the door).
Finally in terms of novels were two that I think were probably not aimed at my demographic. I suggest they are more likely meant for younger people, probably young women. I was underwhelmed by The First Bad Man by Miranda July. A very strange tale about a lonely and put upon employee of a supercharged couple who foist their rebellious daughter onto her with surprising consequences. Nor was I keen on Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth in which the heroine, constantly drunk or on the verge of drunkenness veers from one unlikely episode to another. I am however recommending my 20 something daughter read them both, to see whether my guess about the intended audience is correct.
I read and enjoyed only two non-fiction books this year. Which is surprising. First was John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr.
This was a beautiful book. Written using only his own words from various bits of writing that he left behind. He lived a difficult life. Twice opportunities for happiness and advancement were lost, showing how precarious life at this time was. How much depended on relationships with people in positions of influence, family circumstances and happenstance. He seems to have been hardworking but did not receive the acknowledgement that he should have. He was a map maker and a biographer – purportedly the first English one. An amazingly accessible look at a very English life.
My second non-fiction tome was The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung by Roger Scruton which was preparation for the second Melbourne Ring Cycle, more of which anon. Suffice to say I found it absorbing and incredibly rewarding in terms of my understanding of that great work of art.
In fact I read Grief Is The Thing With Feathers in 2015 and it is in my best books for that year (only third). But I did buy the beautiful hard back copy pictured above in 2016 to give to Joe. I also read the Enright book in 2015. And I have remembered another non-fiction; My Life On The Road by Gloria Steinem. It was wonderful. More an activist handbook than a memoir with advice on how to organise a campaign, a conference, craft a resolution, a speech to persuade, deal with obstacles (especially misogyny) and a myriad other things. All her anecdotes contributing to a compelling history of the womens movement. She avoids any sense of settling scores or highlighting differences although its clear she got a rough deal at different times. The most personal bit of the book is the story of her childhood which she has talked about now in lots of interviews that could be googled. A very different sort of childhood to most – mad father and unwell mother. She keeps her personal love life to a minimum although bits creep in – mostly to illustrate a moral. An engaging read – reflecting it’s gracious author.