The last lot of 2015

The end of the year seems an arbitrary but not insignificant marker in the continuum of life, so I realise that I’m putting undue pressure on, but I’m a finisher. After a year of these kinds of round ups, maybe it’s time for a change of tack…

THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK – DORIS LESSING: After stalling with The Good Terrorist, I was surprised to find an early hook. Perhaps it helped that the main character was so easy to identify with, and that the formal challenge of shifting gear as notebooks were traversed was enthralling and stimulating. It’s certainly an ambitious novel, that undermines as it upholds – rangy, intelligent and simply compelling.

THE BREAKERS – CLAUDIE GALLAY: A moody, enigmatic and almost entirely riveting story about a woman transported to the rough edge of the French coast for reasons that become clear – especially after she meets another soul turned up to grieve. A tense read, a ‘coming-to-terms’, and a mystery that’s not so much thrilling as it is dark. The things that make it memorable – the porbeagle, the children and an escape to Paris – are beautiful spots of light in the darkness.

THE FOUNDLING BOY – MICHEL DEON: After a terrific beginning, with cheeky asides from the writer (by far the strongest part of the book), the story of a boy growing up in Normandy just before the second world war dwindles into a romp around with a confidence trickster. Not that it started altogether earnestly, but it seemed to have a bit more weight than it ultimately delivered. Shan’t read the next one…

PACIFIC – TOM DRURY: Another terrific installment of Grouse County, as different again from The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams. Drury just cooks up the tastiest, most plate-licking of all literary dishes that you want to start again as soon as you’ve finished. You can simply never have enough Drury. Question is, am I brave enough the enter The Driftless Area when my heart is in Grouse County?

UNDER MAJOR DOMO MINOR – PATRICK DE WITT: Whilst reading this, I couldn’t help but recall the story I heard about de Witt assessing his writing through the haze of dope. This story lacks the charm of The Sisters Brothers, though it has its fair share of capers and quirk. Whereas Eli is captivating from the start, Lucy takes a bit of warming up, and in the end, his story just wasn’t enough to have me rooting for him. Damned expectations, I say.

THE DRIVER’S SEAT – MURIEL SPARK: What a sharp knife Spark’s writing is, and what a story The Driver’s Seat. The protagonist is a perplexing oddball, going on a bewildering holiday. She’s looking for someone, someone that will complete her fantasy – or destiny – to make this the holiday to end all holidays. A shapeshifter, the character becomes different things in different company, and she drives exchanges with companions wilfully, almost maniacally. The man she ultimately fixes her gaze on has no chance. The backdrop of student riots serves as a poignant reflection of the woman’s self obsession, which leads to her self destruction. Chilling.

THE WOLF BORDER – SARAH HALL: Hall has thrilled me in the past with her almost feral characters, and Rachel begins that way, too: she’s a warden of a pack of wolves in Canada who is enticed to return to the Lake District to manage an ambitious project of re-wilding. Conceiving days before she leaves Canada, Rachel’s story is two-fold: becoming a mother; and getting to grips with hostility that is more political than natural. The setting and the characters sparkle in true Hall style, but the story pulls its punches so that the jeopardy remains too far away to be a threat.

DROWN – JUNOT DIAZ: Diaz’s spell over me holds. Drown is full of stories about people playing against their own character, dealing with hardship and turmoil that is as much internal as it is circumstantial – and yet expertly questioning the extent to which the environment makes the man. Drown is tender, and hones in on critical, formative moments. It also revels in the relationships between daily decisions and long-term situations, making the reader wonder when lightning actually strikes. Fucking glorious.

THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP – MARIE KONDO: Some books have a ‘time’ and this book’s time is now, following the painful process I’ve been through of emptying my London flat and condensing my belongings into the size of a shipment. In this mindset – ‘what else can go?’ – Kondo’s book makes great sense. That it is the only thing I’ve ever read to make me question whether I want to keep all my thousands of books is comment enough.

More books read

Vanquishing the Man Booker winners and a Peirene binge feature in the Autumn 2015 batch of nine – and for the delay in posting, I can only blame moving country.

THE FAMISHED ROAD – BEN OKRI: Imagine a dream that keeps morphing and changing, over the course of a fevered, endless night and you’ll about have the measure of The Famished Road. I probably didn’t get it. I know two people who’ve read it – one liked it, the other kept tight lipped whenever I mentioned it. I am still astonished that I finished it.

READER FOR HIRE – RAYMOND JEAN: If you agree that the power of reading is at least in part seductive, then Reader for Hire is a fun adventure about how one reader gets enveloped into the lives of her listeners. If you don’t agree, then the story could be bamboozling, bordering on upsetting. I really enjoyed the reflected intimacy between reader and listener, but found the story overall lacking in depth.

UNDER THE TRIPOLI SKY – KAMAL BEN HAMEDA: An enigmatic, revealing tale that dwells in the temporary confidences and acceptance bestowed on a boy before he starts to stretch towards manhood. A view of a changing culture from ‘under the skirt tails’. Imbued with a sense of melancholy about what may soon be forbidden and with perplexity about why and how people behave as they do.

PORTRAIT OF THE MOTHER AS A YOUNG WOMAN – FRIEDRICH CHRISTIAN DELIUS: This seems to me to be the ultimate portrayal of a moment in time and left me with an affection for Rome that I hadn’t felt when I visited. The observations are tender and the young woman at the centre of it draws the gaze.

HOW TO BE BOTH – ALI SMITH: My copy started with George, who is swimming in the death of her mother. Instantly likeable, compelling and all the more real for her analytical approach to porn, her conversations with her dead mother, her wringing of her own lexicon to suit her new environment – utterly intoxicating. The historical section that follows is light-hearted and breathes magic and play into an era depicted so heavily in fresco. The protagonist becomes something she isn’t, and lives it to great consequence. A long solitary walk in the damp mountain plains could stop my heart bursting. Monumental.

MORE TREES TO CLIMB – BEN MOOR: The title story of this three story collection is the one that captures the charm of Moor’s brand of storytelling whimsy, it centring around tree-climbing championships. Not having experienced these stories in their original form of live performance, I can’t speak to how well they translate, but the stories definitely stand to be read, and the linguistic gymnastics and penchant for the fantastical are evident.

THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE – PATRICK NESS: This is the kind of book that makes me feel a bit more hopeful for the next generation, because it depicts same-sex, first sex, depression, eating disorders and OCD without being about any of those things. It’s an engaging story that’s also super smart: it took me longer to realise that the italicised chapter intros were happening elsewhere in the town than I care to admit!

GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS – MAX PORTER: I can only superlatively gush about this novel, the likes of which you will never have seen before. A hybrid between novel and poem, it’s a document of grief and about how we weave our losses into the fabric of our lives enough that we can carry on. But it isn’t mawkish at all: it’s charming and funny and gross and slippery and honest and wacky and on-the-nail and diverting and playful. Above all playful. Because isn’t that what we do when we lose the very thing that anchors us to the world? We play at living, until we remember how to. READ IT. But not, as Bookseller Crow says, on an e-reader.

SAINT MAZIE – JAMI ATTENBERG: To say this is a smart blend of diary and third person accounts that depicts Manhattan through the start of the 20th century is to not even get close to why it’s GREAT. Mazie’s voice is wholly original and invites deep affection and trust; her situation is fascinating and complex and her approach to it a mixture of the duty-bound and the frivolous. The way that areas of town and even particular buildings add to the cast of characters induces awe. The story so expertly avoids painting Mazie’s charitable actions sentimentally that we should all read it, because you don’t have to be a saint to do good.

WLTM: discovering America through its female writers

I know, I know – I never learn. Anyway, what better way to investigate this temporary place of residence than through its women. Ahem. I mean its women writers. Always interested in challenges with more than one dimension, I thought I could spread my eye kisses across the states… but I need help! Suggestions for women writers from any of the as yet unallocated states below? Throw them at me – in the comments, on twitter, by email or by beautiful old fashioned mail. Oh, and no need to get pissy or strict about state associations – I’m looking broadly for a writer to be born of, or have stayed a length of time in, a state to claim it. This isn’t science, it’s art, alright?

Thanks to @MildlyBitter, @DrBremm, @booksellercrow and @halehroshan for suggestions.

Arkansas – MAYA ANGELOU: Gather together in my name
California – KATHLEEN ALCOTT: The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets
Connecticut – ANN ARENSBERG: Sister Wolf or Group Sex
Florida – ZORA NEALE HURSTON: Their eyes were watching God
Georgia – ALICE WALKER: Now is the time to open your heart
Illinois – EDNA FERBU: So big; JUDITH GUEST: Ordinary People
Maine – ELIZABETH STROUTT: My name is Lucy Barton
Maryland – ADRIENNE RICH: On lies, secrets and silence
Massachusetts – EDITH WHARTON: Ethan Frome; SUSAN AND ELIZA MINOT: Rapture & The Brambles
Michigan – ANGELA FLOURNOY: The Turner House
Minnesota – LOUISE ERDRICH: The Antelope Wife
Mississippi – EUDORA WELTY
Nebraska – WILLA CATHER: My Antonia
Nevada – CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Gold Fame Citrus
New Hampshire
New Jersey – CARLENE BAUER: Frances and Bernard
New Mexico
New York – SUSAN SONTAG: In America
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oregon – RACHEL KUSHNER: The Flamethrowers
Pennsylvania – DEVRA DAVIS: When smoke ran like water
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee – ANN PATCHETT: Bel Canto
Vermont – MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN: Almost Famous Women
Virginia – NELL ZINK: Mislaid/The Wallcreeper
Washington – MARY MCCARTHY: The Group
West Virginia