1. Collected Short Stories, Volume Two, Somerset Maugham:
As a short story aficionado, I felt it my duty to tackle this dusty old book that had been on my shelves for years. The Vessel of Wrath is the opening story and while it could have shaved off the first two pages, I did enjoy the drunken lout falling for the devout missionary. There are stories set in Malaya, America and England and we are still very much in colonial times. Looking back at the list of titles only one month after finishing it, not one story rings a bell other than the opener. That might be telling in itself.
2. Burmese Days, George Orwell:
Book two of my Orwell project and his first novel. This is an ugly colonial story, based no doubt in part on Orwell’s experience as a member of the Indian Imperial Police. None of the characters come out well, not even the so-called hero John Flory who through sheer loneliness in the jungle falls for Elizabeth Lackersteen, newly arrived, but heartless, English girl. The passages of out and out racism are hard to stomach, and the doctor Veraswami’s defence of the British is disturbing despite his brutal treatment. But Orwell does create a sense of the sweaty place very well with the heat, the flies, the jungle and the arrogance of the British Raj. Not an easy read.
3. Autobiography, Morrissey:
A guilty pleasure. Mozza may have written some of the funniest lyrics known to man, but he is not a great writer. This book is stuffed with excruciating alliteration and forced, bloated prose but the it’s-grim–up-north-especially-Manchester of his youth and the court case with Johnny Marr and Mike Joyce do make it a fascinating read….up to a point. The final third tails off into dreary details of the sheer number of sell-out shows and how much the public seems to love him. And he can’t possibly understand why. Not little modest me Morrissey. His bitchiness is hilarious and I do wonder if the legal team at Penguin had a few sleepless nights before publication as there’s little evidence of the book being edited down at all. Having it listed as a Penguin Classic is a major marketing coup. Probably my favourite scene is on Saddleworth Moor. I won’t spoil it for the readers but I can believe what happened up there. That place is creepy as hell.
4. A Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell:
This book is bad. Even Orwell disowned it. Badly written, rambling plot and a truly god-awful chapter in which I think Orwell is trying to rip off Joyce by writing a chapter all in stereotyped dialogue. It just doesn’t work. Dorothy Hare is the devoted rector’s daughter who one night through overwork, we assume, loses her memory, finds herself penniless, hop-picking, then down and out in Trafalgar Square before landing a job as a teacher in a grim private school. It’s like Dickens without the fun. And what do we get at the end of it all? She regains her memory and her family, but loses her faith. Dorothy, we couldn’t give a stuff.
1. Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho & his friends, Charlotte Chandler:
This is Groucho Marx’s biography, or one of them. Written by Chandler towards the very end of Marx’s life, she traces the comedian’s family, lovers and successes. I’m a huge fan of the Marx brothers’ films but I came away from this book finding Groucho a bit of a bore. In hindsight I think this is in part due to a lack of editing – so many stories were repeated ad infinitum – and in part because of Chandler’s research. She was welcomed into Groucho’s world when he was in his 80s and is too connected to him to be able to write with a sharper eye. When I think of the care with which Blake Bailey wrote about John Cheever, Chandler comes a very poor second. One thing though: all are agreed that Harpo was a lovely man. That makes me happy.
2. Animal Farm, George Orwell:
I’m starting a winter project of reading all of Orwell’s novels. I read this in one day in between walking 9 miles along the Thames river at night. It was the last day of the month: November 30th, 2014. I like that its subtitle states “Animal Farm: A Fairy Tale”. That might be so, but the story within is so recognisable of many horrid regimes over the centuries that perhaps it should be renamed “Animal Farm: A True Story”. An excellent book.
1. The Crow Road, Iain Banks:
I first watched this when they made it into a mini-series in 1996. One brilliant scene stuck in my mind. It’s between the atheist father and god-believing son. They’re on a lake and the hugely sympathetic Bill Paterson, who plays the father, gives his son Prentice a piece of his mind. In the book it is fairly inconsequential, but the TV series made it a core part of the drama. About halfway through the book I think to myself, it’s not really about anything in particular but it does make you want to visit Scotland again. Banks writes lovingly about his home turf. And it does remind you not to ever, EVER, stop speaking to your parents, whatever they might have said or done. You will regret it, trust me. This is a tale of families and friendship. The mystery around Uncle Rory’s disappearance is just a distraction. The depth lies in the family ties, no matter how wonky or knotty.
2. Catch 22, Joseph Heller:
I’m rattling through my unread book shelf and this has been on it since at least 1995. How do I know? Because I have a habit of sticking tickets and other paraphernalia in every book I read. I found a £1 single tube ticket from Elephant & Castle stuffed between the pages. On the inside, there is a red stamp from “North Yorkshire County Library, 10p, WITHDRAWN”. I always loved a bargain, but on first reading I did not love this book. It wallowed on my shelves for 19 years. Second time round, I don’t understand my sniffiness. It is everything I love. Funny, irreverent and totally bonkers. Only someone who has lived through wars can truly understand the insanity. Heller was a fighter pilot and the pages are packed with Catch 22 after Catch 22. The phrase has become a part of our language and as wars still rage, so the insanity continues.
1. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers:
This has been on my top ten list for years. I thought I would revisit it to see if it still deserved the top rung. You bet. If you read one book this year, pick this one. There is no character like John Singer in literature and he will break your heart into a million pieces. What is more, McCullers was twenty-friggin-three when she wrote it. A.M.A.Z.I.N.G.
2. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri:
Another five starrer. September was a good month. Indians in exile or outcasts in India. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for this small but beautifully crafted collection. Another book that has been sitting on my shelves for years. Little did I realise that I would be moved to tears by her stories. The last lines in her final story, ‘The Third and Final Continent’, was one such example: “While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” It is a gift to make the ordinary extraordinary. Lahiri has it.
3. Four Stories, Alan Bennett:
It feels a bit mean giving Bennett only 3 stars. I love his writing, especially his Talking Heads and his memoires, but September has brought me McCullers and Lahiri. Hard acts to follow. I bought this little bouquin after a trip to Oxford to meet an academic with a terrifying reputation. I thought she was going to eat me alive. She turned out to be utterly lovely. As a treat I went into the Oxfam bookshop after my meeting and picked up this little gem. It has The Lady in the Van, a favourite short of mine, partly because I love eccentrics and it is true. The others were fine stories at the time of reading, but I’ve forgotten them already.
1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot:
An unexpected birthday gift (thanks M!). This story tells the tale of Henrietta Lacks, a young black Afro-American mother of five. She died in obscurity in 1951 but her cells lived on. They were removed without her knowledge or consent when she was dying of ovarian cancer, and have been used in scientific research ever since. Her now world renowned “HeLa” cells have helped to progress scientific research not only on cancer but polio, leukemia, hemophilia, herpes and other major diseases. It also spawned multi-million dollar businesses for those selling the HeLa cells. And yet her family knew nothing of this. They did not make a single cent out of Henrietta’s cells. It is a story of race, discrimination, scientific ethics and morality. And it’s true.
2. Dear Life, Alice Munro:
Disappointing. I know Munro is revered in short story writing circles but I don’t get it. Her style has changed. She is much more terse than her earlier writing. The four semi-autobiographical pieces at the end are revealing to some extent, particularly with regards to her relationship with her mother, but the characters all seemed to share that same sense of isolation, so much so that despite the different stories, they started to resemble each other too much.
June and July 2014
1. Middlemarch, George Eliot:
This is the first book I read on an iPad. Real books don’t run out of juice. Real books don’t glare back at you in the sun. Or freeze occasionally. But real books are heavy. This one was no exception; the difference being this time round that I managed to finish it. Martin Amis thinks it the ‘novel of the 19th century’. He has a point. It is exceptionally good with probably one of my favourite last lines ever, so good that you get to read part it now: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Just beautifully measured. For me, this book is all about failed expectations. The hopes we have early in life and how life scuppers those hopes. For the central character, Dodo, her plans never come to anything but she learns to live with her choices. For Lydgate, life is much more of a disappointment. PS I’m still going to buy real books.
1. Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey:
This 700+ page whopper is excellent. Bailey has done his homework thoroughly, but that is never enough to make a biography great. It is the elegance of his prose, matched by his clear appreciation of Cheever’s writing and the fearlessness with which he explores the man’s darker sides. Not everything that Cheever wrote was great. Not everything that Cheever did was honourable. Hardly surprising considering the amount of years he spent soaked in gin, barely able to wait until midday to pour his first martini. His bisexuality, hidden from most people until his Journals were read and later published, seemed to both fascinate and trouble Cheever in equal measure. I was also touched by how Bailey portrays Cheever’s family – his wife and three children – who supported him through the highs and the many lows of his life. Just as an aside, and for the historical record, due to the size of this tome, it prompted me to buy an iPad. Man, that book was heavy.
2. The World of Apples, Eudora Welty:
Short story readers round the world may want to lynch me for this harsh score, and it should have ticked all my boxes: American short story writer; set in the Deep South during the Depression; female author (and a photographer to boot). Well written? Yes. Evocative of time and place? Without question. Did I enjoy it? No. It took me forever to read because…it was dull. It is book-ended by a birth and a death, with a stack of intertwined stories on life in the middle. I liked that framing, but most tales lacked dramatic arc and humour. Give me Flannery O’Connor any day of the week.
3. The Queen and I, Sue Townsend:
The British royal family get ousted from power and move into a council estate to live with poor but ‘eart o’ gold folk. Daft (but after Eudora Welty a bit of a relief). And as a staunch anti-monarch, it tapped into all my fantasies.
1. The Stories of John Cheever, John Cheever:
In the run up to The Short Story competition 2014, I thought I’d revisit some old Cheever classics: The Enormous Radio; O City of Broken Dreams; The Day the Pig Fell into the Well; and the excruciating story Reunion. I’ve been simultaneously reading Blake Bailey’s excellent biography, Cheever: A Life, so it’s been intriguing to read what was happening in Cheever’s life when a story was written. There are many autobiographical elements. and he could be merciless in his treatment of people, especially his long-suffering wife. The man was narcissistic, chronically alcoholic and deeply flawed, which is perhaps why he produced some of the greatest short stories ever told.
1. A Son of the Circus, John Irving:
Irving wrote one of my all-time favourites: A Prayer for Owen Meany. But not all his novels are great. This one sits somewhere in the middle. Set in India, but as Irving stresses, it is not about India. It involves circus dwarves and Indian doctors, gruesome murders and Bollywood movie stars, transexuals and tarts. The overriding theme is identity in a world of colourful outcasts. It’s too long at over 600 pages, with a rambling and confusing beginning. But Irving finds his rhythm towards the middle of the book. Only then does his classic sense of humour surface and I start to enjoy his natural story telling.
2. Him with his Foot in his Mouth, Saul Bellow:
Author of another perennial favourite, Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow pens a confessional letter by an old man to a woman he insulted years before. The insult was cruel and undeserved and it has preyed on the narrator’s mind ever since. Only now, 35 years later, when he finds himself a widower, alone, and about to face extradition for financial mismanagement, does he find the courage and the language to make his apologies. It feels a bit slight, as lightweight as its pocket size. Still, it fit snugly in my handbag on a flight to Copenhagen.
1. Over Seventy and Other Digressions, P.G. Wodehouse:
After 12 Years a Slave, I was looking for something light and entertaining. P.G. Wodehouse supplied it with his deliciously gentle dig at the genre of autobiography. The funniest Foreword you’re ever likely to get this side of the neatly painted white fence. Now out of print, I managed to get a first edition for £20 from Abe Books with the original dustsleeve. It shows the great man himself on the cover holding his cat. A must read for all Wodehouse fans.
2. The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter:
There’s one word in Japanese for a book that’s been sitting on your shelves for years that you’ve never got round to reading: tsundoku. It takes the English language at least 17 words to describe this little gem. For decades I’ve seen it on my shelves and walked on. I must have passed it thousands of times and never felt tempted. What an idiot. It was the most sensual, richly Gothic, feminist take on fairy tales a woman could hope for. And the retelling of Puss in Boots is a corker. Don’t let it linger on your shelves as long as I did.
1. The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vasquez:
Fictional account of Colombia and the drugs trade. Lots of things are falling: planes, bullets, bodies. Ricardo Laverde, the narrator, gets caught in the crossfire almost causing his own death. This leads him on a journey of discovery right back to the marajuana days of the 1960s.
2. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson:
It’s January. It’s dark. It’s wintertime. What better way to light up these gloomy months than with a phial full of Gothic horror. I’ve never read it before, but I’d bet 34 pence Oscar Wilde must have been influenced by this story. But I can’t quite get the Morecombe and Wise version out of my head.
3. 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup:
I watched the film. I had to read the book. Both brutal and brilliant. The film is very faithful to Solomon’s terrible story, but his account has just that bit more time to explore the horrors of slavery.