The Year in Books So Far

It’s been a funny old year, reading-wise. I was pondering why this might be so when it suddenly occurred to me that my algorithm for purchasing books has changed. As audio books are pretty much all I use these days, I’m mostly on the lookout for cheap kindle books with cheap whisper-sync options. I used to  have the monthly audible credit and audible’s regular sales to add into the mix, but my library of unread books reached a figure Mr Litlove must never know about, and so I’ve cancelled my membership until the TBR pile is tamed.  But still I find myself searching the amazon deals, an occupation which has taken me into a demi-monde of publishing that I never knew about before. Basically I had no idea so much crap was published. In all fairness there are probably some great books out there, but the amount of nonsense you have to wade through to find them is a little overwhelming.

So I think this explains why I’ve read so few good new releases this year. Two exceptions, however, go straight into the top ten. Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight. I haven’t got much to say about them except that they were absolutely brilliant and made me excited about what the novel can do. They were both so astutely observed and chose intelligence over sensation.

In the big book category, however, I had two notable disappointments. The first was Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Last summer I listened to Swallows and Amazons and loved it, so this year I decided I’d try another children’s classic that I never got around to with my son. I should point out that I generally don’t choose YA or children’s books. But I’d loved Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke and enjoyed The Shadow in the North (though I never approve of killing off main characters – I blame J K Rowling for this trend which to my mind breaks a sacred trust with the reader, but that’s just my feeling). Northern Lights is objectively a terrific book. The plot never slackens and not a sentence is out of place. But… I found myself listening to get it finished, not because it had truly engaged me. I’m tempted to say it lacks psychological depth, but honestly, Swallows and Amazons hardly owes a debt to Freud. I don’t know what the matter was. The other big disappointment was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. On paper this sounded perfect – bookshops and mysterious authors with hidden pasts. In reality I lost the will to live less than a quarter of the way through. I don’t think the audio version did it any favours. Setterfield has the kind of style that I might classify as Goes On A Bit, and whilst some parts were beautifully written, others verged on the cringeworthy. Also, most characters had a tendency to be one-dimensionally mad, which I found tedious, and the gothic parts were just implausible. I expect lots of people loved this story: sorry.

On a cheerier note, I’ve done very well with memoirs, listening to three really good ones: Tara Westover’s Educated, Rebecca Stott’s In The Days of Rain and Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own. Westover pips Stott by a feather, but both were mesmerising. Religious fundamentalists make for wonderful batty parent stories, though I spent a great deal of time feeling furious on behalf of their children. It seemed to me that their behaviour had nothing really to do with religion; instead, what these books show is how dangerous people become when they decide they are unequivocally right and that all their conduct is uniquely blessed and sanctioned. The Claire Tomalin was a very different kettle of non-biblical fish. Tomalin’s life as an editor and biographer was a resounding success, but her private life was full of tragedy. Her journalist husband was killed in the Middle East crossfire, and of her four children, one died shortly after birth, another is severely disabled and one committed suicide at Oxford. Yet Tomalin’s account is remarkably low-key, sometimes to the point of sterility. I scoured the reviews afterwards, wondering what others made of this and the response in the mainstream papers was very positive. Other journalists applauded her absence of emotion. I didn’t need sob stories but for me one significant dimension of a memoir is an account of what life has taught its author about herself. Educated is fantastic in this regard. Maybe Tomalin couldn’t leave the biographer’s attitude behind, refusing to draw conclusions? Well, it was a fascinating book, if odd, and sometimes fascinating because of its oddness.

If there’s one category, though, that I’m doomed never to find a decent book in, it’s contemporary mass market. The curse of the sympathetic character has ruined most of them, and a strange contagious plot disease has weakened the rest. I was going to name and shame but I can’t be bothered. They’re not worth it and I should never have gone there. But what has really worked for me, and been perhaps the most bizarrely successful part of a generally bizarre year, has been a sentimental return to books I read and loved as a teenager. This all began right back at the start of the year when I noticed that Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels were going to be issued in audio book format. It’s tragic, I know, but this was my most anticipated event of the year. The Merlin novels always struck me in retrospect as a mirage. Mary Stewart’s other novels are okay, not great, and I wondered whether youth and enthusiasm had skewed my perspective. Not a bit of it. They are still outstanding – clever, powerful, vivid, stirring. I’m not sure how they would go down with younger readers these days, as there’s much more description and plot moves more slowly. But I appreciated the space this gave to the story to live and breathe in my imagination. They are not fantasy novels, though. They are much more about political power, and as such seemed to resonate for me with our 21st century plight in which power is used against the gullible and disadvantaged to get what the powerful want.

Thus encouraged I started poking about amazon’s bargain bins with my teenage years in mind. And I ended up listening to a lot of Joanna Trollope and Georgette Heyer. And they were fab! Really nice sentences, great plotting skills, credible characters. There were things going on at all points in the book which made me curious to see how the characters would react. No great middle-section wastelands where we must all tread water in anticipation of a twist. Honestly, when I was looking for an agent a couple of years ago – and a most depressing business it was – the vast majority were most keen to find a chilling psychological thriller with a truly original twist! I have read such books from the supermarket and they are laughably implausible. Why has this become the Ur-book of the new millennium? What does this say about our culture? Or, in all fairness the alternative must be considered, is this just what getting old looks like?

So currently, I am listening to Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds and Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones, both of which I am enjoying. And I’m theoretically listening to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, when I feel strong enough. It fooled me by having an opening page of terrific humour, but by the end of the second chapter there had been three tragic, tear-jerking deaths. I’m about five chapters in now and have lost track of the body count, and am afraid we might run out of characters. Be warned, Cranford is obviously the former name of Midsomer but without the jolliness.

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Real Hope For Dark Days

It’s a sore trial living in the UK at the moment. After three years of the shambolic Brexit debacle, in which zero progress has been made, we’re now forced to witness a leadership contest that showcases the most dismal collection of candidates – more of a police line-up than a beauty parade. Worst of all, Boris Johnson is supposed to win, which makes me feel like I’m living in a piece of Dadaist theatre except they tell me it’s really happening. How a man who has been sacked twice for lying, who caused chaos in the Foreign Office and wasted millions as Mayor of London, who basically has no principles and is known to be lazy, self-serving and ready to give up at the first obstacle can possibly become Prime Minister beggars belief. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t sat here laughing at Trump all this time. Anyway, enough. It’s just depressing to acknowledge what the plausible leaders of our country now look like.

It’s just as well, then, that books can offer genuine hope and solace. If you have inadvertently glanced at the online comments on the Guardian website lately and lost all hope in humanity, I have two books that will restore it. Growing Pains by Dr Mike Shooter and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy are both non-fiction accounts of lives spent helping children to find their best and most promising selves. Mike Shooter is a child psychiatrist in the NHS, Kate Clanchy teaches English in a multi-cultural comprehensive, and they have brought much joy and inspiration into our house lately, with narratives that are a patchwork of fascinating case histories.

Growing Pains is the story of Mike Shooter’s career listening to adolescents (and their families) in crisis. He begins the book with an honest account of his own depression and his early work in medicine. It’s one particular encounter, at 2am on a terminal ward that changes the course of his life. He is following the Senior Registrar – ‘aloof, taciturn, straight-backed’ – to check on a Mr Dobbs, who is dying of an aneurysm. They find, as one might expect, a terrified man.

Simon sat on his bed and asked him if he was frightened. Mr Dobbs nodded; he was beyond words. Then Simon, straight-laced, Simon, the man we thought more suited to a brigade of guards than patient care, took him in his arms and rocked him to and fro like a baby, while Mr Dobbs sobbed into his shoulder.’

The next morning, Simon is absent and Mike Shooter is asked if he’ll talk to Mr Dobbs instead. He is so afraid of the prospect that he goes to see the Dean of the Medical School instead, to tell him he’s quitting. But the Dean, a wise old soul, says no he isn’t; he’ll make a good doctor one day, but he’s depressed. ‘And the worse you feel about yourself, the harder you work to prove you’re wrong. You’ve been fighting against what you really feel for years. This was bound to happen. Mr Dobbs was just the final straw.’ The Dean arranges for him to see a psychiatrist, and over the course of the next few years, the treatment Mike Shooter receives makes him realise that this is the field he wants to dedicate himself to. The ability to ‘see beyond [the] patient’s symptoms to the human being behind them’ was the rule he wanted to follow.

Well by now you might be able to see beyond the words of this review to the readers behind them – the only problem we had with it was that it kept making Mr Litlove cry. And if Mr Litlove cries, then I cry, that’s just how it goes. I need to stress that these were not tears of sadness, but the more complicated throat-tightening tears of beauty and humanity. And I should also stress that this is not at all a manipulative book. Dr Shooter never dwells on any part of his story and in consequence the narrative was not harrowing, despite the subject matter. It was inspirational, in the most grounded and humane ways. One of the stories that stays with me still concerns another middle of the night emergency call that summons Dr Shooter to a household in crisis.  An eight-year-old child, Danny, is threatening to kill himself. When the doctor arrives, the child is on the landing, his pyjama cord around his neck, the other end tied to the banisters, and his desperate, angry, fearful parents are hypnotised by the situation. Mike Shooter’s response is to come in as if everything were normal, exclaim at the lateness of the hour and express a strong need for a cup of tea. He asks if Danny would like a snack before bedtime, and the spell of craziness is dispelled by the autopilot of ordinary hospitality. Everyone comes and sits around the tea tray in the middle of the living room where it becomes apparent that the man is the mother’s new partner whom Danny is rejecting and that ‘they all wanted to change things but didn’t know how to do it without tearing each other apart’ A problem with which I imagine we are all familiar, and where salvation can come so much more quickly with someone calm, kind and firm to help.

Kate Clanchy’s book also focusses on individual students as they struggle and triumph on the battlefield of education and the stories she tells are just as fascinating, whether it’s the way the word ‘gay’ has signified in classrooms across the years, or what the parents of excluded children are up against when they try to get their kids a fair educational deal. Kate is also a poet and her poetry club becomes one of the major features in her stories, as she finds it can be a real liberation for all kinds of children, including those who have English as a second language or who suffer from dyslexia. She tackles knotty subjects like selection in schools – both streaming in classes and the nightmare parents face when trying to decide what school to pick for their children. And she talks about the pleasures and pains of teaching English.

There are so many stories I love, I don’t know which to tell you about. But just off the top of my head, there’s Allen, a large, capable boy more suited to open spaces, but bright and interested in English literature. He was that mythical beast, an adolescent boy willing to talk about emotions, and as such he stimulated real class discussion. It just so happened that this class was one in which Kate could exercise her own judgement to some extent and choose the books that would best inspire her students (not something that happens these days). Twenty-five years later she looks him up on Linked-In and finds out that he runs an engineering business and is a self-made millionaire, He in turn remembers her lessons as a place where ‘I learned who I was.’ ‘English:’ Clanchy writes, ‘the lesson where you laugh about sex, and argue about war, and talk about jealousy. English: where you grow up.’ The problem is that English, like poetry, does not ‘WALT’ well. WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To’ and has become the staple of ‘formative assessment’ which the government likes a lot. It comes from the best of motives, Clanchy explains, the desire to open up a learning process that might appear hidden or opaque. But what works well for a science lesson is altogether harder to pin down in the arts and humanities. The consequence has been that WALT dominates lesson plans and the non-WALT aspects of education, like artistic creativity and all that nebulous maturation process get left out of the curriculum.

The stories in both books inevitably bump up against politics because both authors are working on the cliff edge where the vulnerable and the economically-nonprofitable clash with government funding. But these are not polemical books. They are about thoughtful people who are really good at their jobs understanding the pressures on all sides and doing their best for children, however that shakes out. Listening to these books has made me think a lot about what’s wrong with the world today, and for my own part I think it boils down to an insufficient engagement with reality. I blame the media mostly, for their two-note grizzles of sentimentality and outrage, emotions that reliably sell papers, but which have made us all happy to be ignorant. It takes terrific courage to face the truth of our lives, and mostly we are invited to side step that reality and find someone else to blame. Or we end up letting ourselves be sold ideals of perfection and purity that are equally dangerous.

What I loved about these books is their authors’ readiness to talk about getting things wrong. Clanchy produces such an admirably nuanced description of Cheyenne, a poor working class child who spent her time pushing Kate’s middle-class buttons and stalking her children, whom Kate could not truly like. And I loved the story in which Mike Shooter is called to deal with a psychotic break in an adolescent who has been wrongly placed in the adult ward. Hassan escaped his nurses and ran around the grounds of the unit, talking in Somali and scooping mud and grass into his mouth. Shooter thought it possible that he was just terrified and involved in some kind of prayer ritual he didn’t understand, so he called the Somali elders from the community to come and advise him. After a few minutes they turned on him. asking how he dared call himself a doctor and telling him to get the boy some medication. It’s not about mistakes – if you’re a human being engaged in something you care about, you will be making mistakes. They are inevitable. What these stories show is that it’s about the process – the process of finding out what’s wrong and of learning and becoming more self-aware in consequence, possibly the most important process that we are called upon to practice on a regular basis and which we avoid and fumble and foul up out of embarrassed pride or some weird, punitive notion that it ‘shouldn’t happen.’

These have both been terrific books, loved and admired equally by myself and Mr Litlove. They have made us laugh and cry and feel deeply in touch with both the difficult business of growing up and the authentic hope embedded in the care of people like Mike Shooter and Kate Clanchy that we might actually make it. For they have a lot to teach adults too, as a quick glance around the political candidates for Tory party leader can tell us. They’ve made me want to have a completely different kind of identity politics, one in which gender, skin colour, race, religion, none of these thing matter, but where the identity is question is that of a grown-up and it’s an identity to which we all aspire.

Decades of capitalism have encouraged us to stay children with the goal of becoming spoiled children. I think it’s given us very complicated feelings about people who are able shamelessly to make a fool of themselves in public, and that sometimes such people can be used to assuage us about our insecurities. This is an indulgence – something that makes us feel better in the short-term but worse in the long-term. What we need is to admire the grown-up again, the sensible, grounded person who doesn’t make a fuss about things, but who won’t sit passive when they could offer help. The sort of person who, currently, says the wise, placatory thing on social media and is totally ignored. We need the kind of grown-up who has a strong moral compass and a great deal of compassion, who has emotional intelligence, self-awareness and the courage to look reality in the eye, even when it is ugly. The kind of grown-up who can sit with people in emotional distress and not make it about themselves. We need more Mike Shooters and Kate Clanchys, basically, and the fact that they have written these books shows that such people are out there, it’s just that we so rarely get to hear about them. For me they’ve been a properly optimistic antidote to everything going on in the news, and the embodiment of an aspiration that is as difficult as becoming rich and famous but infinitely more desirable.

 

 

Forty Great Books By Women About Women

Last week my friend sent me a link to a list of 40 Books Every Woman Should Read in Red magazine. It seemed such an odd, eclectic list that it has tempted me to write my own. But without bullying modal verbs. Below are 40 books written by women in the 20th or 21st century that have something to say about being a woman, and I think they are all very good books. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments (my list isn’t especially diverse, for instance); I’d love to hear about your favourites too.

1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Brilliant account of the plight of the woman artist.

2. A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Hard to believe this meditation on women’s ability to take on responsibility to the point of overwhelm is fifty years old. It’s still so pertinent.

3. Cheri by Colette. Surely one of the best novels ever about a woman growing too old for love.

4. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Pulitzer prize winner about a disgraced woman’s uneasy return to her social tribe.

5. Ghosting by Jennie Erdall. A beautiful piece of creative non-fiction about the art of ghostwriting.

6. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. A portrait of tense but fierce female friendship.

7. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. The inimitable Carter’s take on classic fairy tales.

8. Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Poignant memoir of life with a newborn.

9. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. So much I could have picked by Beauvoir, but in the end I opted for her first volume of memoirs: mapping the creation of a female genius.

10. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim. The funny, bittersweet story of an ordinary marriage with all its trials and tribulations (and bad childbirth experiences).

11. Lying by Lauren Slater. Controversial memoir about epilepsy and the author’s tendency to fabulate.

12. Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar. This actually isn’t my favourite Djebar but she’s hard to get hold of in translation. She’s a brilliant writer on Algerian women’s experience.

13. How To Be Both by Ali Smith. A truly joyous novel about love and art.

14. The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska. I’m always trying to persuade people to read this. It’s an entirely original piece of creative non-fiction, not to be summed up in a sentence!

15. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I’m not a big reader of children’s books as an adult, but this one really transcends its boundaries. The story of a young girl who hunts the galaxy for her lost father.

16. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. The American Madame Bovary.

17. This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway. Hilarious account of a gruelling Scottish childhood.

18. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Powerful and disturbing story of an abused foster child in the Depression Era.

19. Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. How many novels can you think of that feature as their heroine a brilliant elderly lady who knits? Watch Miss Marple wipe the floor with Inspector Slack.

20. Reading Women by Stephanie Staal. The author audits a class on feminist texts in the early stages of her marriage and new motherhood. It’s beautifully done.

21. Sherazade by Leïla Sebbar. A teenage Algerian runaway in Paris on a search for her identity.

22. Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. Coming of age in South Africa with a hated mother and a burning desire to write (yup, pretty autobiographical, Doris).

23. The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm. Brilliant account of Sylvia Plath that teases out the hidden agendas in those who witnessed and wrote about her.

24. The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Modern classic novel about women struggling to make it in Hollywood. Harlequin Romance meets Emile Zola.

25. Bilgewater by Jane Gardam. Beautiful coming of age novel.

26. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. One of the most original and extraordinary accounts of motherhood you’ll ever read.

27. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. One of my all-time favourite novels about Little England in which spinster, Mildred, watches the machinations of her attractive, trendy neighbours.

28. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. A recent edition to my personal greats. A novel about mothers and daughters and dysfunctional families.

29. The Group by Mary McCarthy. Following the lives of a group of friends post-Vassar in 1930s America. Was a scandalous success back in the day, still a great novel.

30. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Teenagers abandoned home alone cope with World War 3. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything else quite so visceral.

31. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. The story of a woman abandoned in a psychiatric institute for her entire life, for not behaving in the ways her family thought fit.

32. The Good Wife by Sue Miller. Can mothers have sex lives? Sue Miller’s gripping, ferocious novel about why they can’t.

33. Desirada by Maryse Condé. Classic novel about a woman’s journey of redemption from Guadeloupe to France to the United States, away from a neglectful mother and in search of her father.

34. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. A slice of beautifully written social history in this saga of a middle-class family during World War Two.

35. Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. Funniest historical fiction ever about a giantess.

36. I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith. Gorgeous coming of age novel about two sisters seeking love and money.

37. Fierce Attachments by Vivien Gornick. A wonderful memoir about never being able to cut loose from a Jewish mother.

38. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Murder and madness in this historical novel. Was young servant girl, Grace Marks, a cold-hearted killer or a vulnerable child just trying to survive?

39. Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Gender-bending, cross-dressing historical romp by the one and only Woolf.

40. Aftermath by Rachel Cusk. This was a very controversial memoir about divorce when it first appeared. Hopefully now the furore has died down it can be read for the beautiful, expressive book that it is.

 

Shiny 11 is out!

Yes, a new edition of Shiny is always a cause for celebration, so, pop your slippers on, get into a comfy chair with snacks to hand and turn your mobile off. The palace of bookish delights awaits you!

SNB-logoClearly, I am in a frivolous mood today.

Okay, so I wrote quite a few reviews for this edition, so let me give you a guiding hand towards a selection of them:

A novel about the sort of topic I might usually avoid as not being ‘my thing’, but which went straight onto my best of the year list.

A brand new heroine of cozy crime, the widow of an Archdeacon, who offers the utmost discretion to her clients in a wonderfully redolent Victorian setting.

The long-withheld novel by a properly famous American cookery writer that has now been published posthumously.

A debut author whose completely gripping novel is set in a Hopperish 60s America and is based on a true story.

A charming, thoughtful, clever novel translated from the German about the friendship between Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill.

A memoir that won the National Book Critics’ Circle award this year about a life spent as part of the black Chicago elite in the 1950s.

We had a lot of fun with our latest ‘Eds Discuss….’ piece, this time thinking about the books we’d read by European authors.

And finally, I put together a Brexit reading list, covering all sorts of fiction and non-fiction that sheds a little light on our current situation.

 

Hope very much you enjoy!