Books: My Reading Year

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No reading year that begins with Virginia Woolf (as did 2016) and ends with Katherine Mansfield can be construed as bad. Nor was it, though I found myself – and this, as I’ve suggested before, may be a function of ageing – spending more time with and deriving more pleasure from books from earlier days than those published during the year.

Having started the year with Lawrence and ‘Sons and Lovers’, I moved on to Woolf and, accompanied by the first volume of her diaries and Julia Brigg’s excellent survey of her life and work, reread, with much pleasure and admiration, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To The Lighthouse’, ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Years’ together with, for the first time, ‘Night and Day’. Looking for something, to my mind, equally good but different, I moved on to Hemingway. Well, I was about to start writing a novel and in need of something bracing that moved to a different set of rhythms, one more suitable for my purposes. So, before setting out, I reread for the umpteenth time a generous selection of the short stories, followed by ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. And as I was hovering over chapter one, and thinking to prosper from his excellent example, I read again Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken Shore’ and ‘Truth’, in order to remind myself of the tautness, tension and sense of purpose that can be found in the very best of crime fiction.

Once safely ensconced in front of my computer in the mornings, my novel on course and moving along at a not unreasonble rate, I turned to Graham Greene for the sheer pleasure of good stories well told. ‘The Human Factor’ (under-rated), ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (a tad over-rated?), ‘The Comedians’ and, best of all, ‘The Quiet American’. Later in the year, I read, for the first time – what had I been doing? – Elizabeth Bowen (loved ‘The House in Paris’) and some Willa Cather I’d not yet got around to, ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, ‘The Professor’s House’ and ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’. And yes, okay, in between all of this harking back I was reading newer things, trying and, all too often, finding them lacking. Tired and obvious in some cases, trying too hard in others. I had been knocked sideways by much of Eimar McBride’s first novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, scenes from which are vivid to me still, but didn’t finish ‘The Lesser Bohemians’, in which she managed to make the sexual dalliances and excessive drinking of a young drama student living in Camden about as repetitive and uninteresting (to others) as, looking back, they probably were at the time. As for George Saunder’s much-touted and prize winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ – even for a writer, one of whose fortes is being experimental and clever (and who, especially when he forgets to be both of those things, has written some of the best short stories of the past decade or two) – it was too tricksy and clever by half. Unreadable.

I must have liked something. Well, yes. Woody Haut’s novel, ‘Days of Smoke’, was fascinating in the detailed and knowledgeable way it recreated the cultural and politcial turbulence of San Francisco and L.A. in the late 60s, and Henning Mankel’s ‘After the Fire’ dealt tellingly with issues of ageing and mortality that, to some of us, are becoming increasingly relevant. Jane Harper’s CWA Gold Dagger winning, ‘The Dry’, was compelling and believable until she felt the need to pull a plot twist out of nowhere towards the end, which lost my sympathies but clearly not that of the judges.

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Almost more than any other, I enjoyed and admired Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’, a skilfully crafted and in some ways old-fashioned novel, which follows the connections and disconnections of two American families from the 60s to the present, and which I found totally absorbing. I also very much liked two of the novels that were short listed for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize: Sarah Baume’s ‘A Line Made By Walking’, which traces a young woman’s deliberate retreat into solitude in prose that is clear and direct yet evocative and moving; and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, which is set in a Derbyshire village where a teenage girl has gone missing.

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McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers and three of his books – ’So Many Ways to Begin’, ‘Even the Dogs’ & ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You’ – are amongst my favourites of the past twenty or so years. I read ‘Reservoir 13’ the moment I got my hands on a copy and then, almost without a break, read it again, the second time to remind myself of what I’d liked, but also because I was hoping to find whatever it was I’d been missing – not the facts about whatever happened to the missing girl, I didn’t need that, nor did I read with an expectation the mystery would be solved; what I’d missed was more about her family, more about the people of the village – in exchange for which I would quite happily have settled for less about the cyclical life of bats, birds and the bloody foxes.

Much of what I wanted is there in the fifteen short stories of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ that are currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and are available both as a download and, now, a book. If, instead of being issued as a companion piece, all – or most – of that material had been included in the original novel, I think it would have been a more complete and satisfying work. But even as I write this, I know (or think I know) that kind of completeness is not what McGregor is after in ‘Reservoir 13’, what he’s setting out to achieve; this is more a narrative that darts its way in and out, giving us a moment here, a moment there; a voice raised, a sudden sharpened glance; a mosaic from which we build our portrait of these lives. And the writing, the prose is so skillfully handled; like Sarah Baume’s in some regards, it is delicate but strong. Push it and it may bend but not break.

And next year, once I’ve finished rereading Katherine Mansfield’s excellent short stories for the fourth or fifth time … ? Well, with the gorgeous new Vintage Classics editions to hand, all with beautiful covers created by Aino-Maija Metsola, it may be the third year in succession I turn to Virginia Woolf to begin …

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Dalloway

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Top 50 Books of the Century (so far …)

 

DruryLike all lists, this is biased, of course; partial, of necessity; it’s intended to be something to argue over, disagree with vehemently, send you to your local bookstore or the library shelves – or on line if you must: these are the books – fiction and non-fiction but not poetry – that have given me the most pleasure in the past sixteen (almost) years; the ones I could most look forward to rereading – and, in some cases, already have.

Hunts in Dreams : Tom Drury (2000)
Assorted Fire Events : David Means (2000)
Mystic River : Dennis Lehane (2001)
The Lovely Bones : Alice Sebold (2002)
That They May Face the Rising Sun : John McGahern (2002)
Sons of Mississippi : Paul Hendrickson (2003)
The Master : Colm Toibin (2004)
Runaway : Alice Munro (2004)
Eventide : Kent Haruf (2004)
Gilead : Marilynne Robinson (2004)
The Ongoing Moment : Geoff Dyer (2005)
The Broken Shore : Peter Temple (2005)
The Year of Magical Thinking : Joan Didion (2005)
The Lay of the Land : Richard Ford (2006)
Watch Me Disappear : Jill Dawson (2006)
This Book Will Save Your Life : A M Homes (2006)
Winter’s Bone : Daniel Woodrell (2007)
So Many Ways to Begin : Jon McGregor (2007)
Home : Marilynne Robinson (2008)
Red Dog, Red Dog : Patrick Lane (2008)
American Rust : Philipp Mayer (2009)
The Children’s Book : A S Byatt (2009)
Truth : Peter Temple (2009)
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It : Maile Meloy (2009)
The Good Soldiers : David Finkel (2009)
Even the Dogs : Jon McGregor (2010)
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter : Tom Franklin (2010)
How to Paint a Dead Man : Sarah Hall (2010)
The Summer Without Men : Siri Hustvedt (2011)
Hemingway’s Boat : Paul Hendrickson (2011)
The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright (2011)
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You : Jon McGregor (2012)
May We Be Forgiven : A M Homes(2012)
N-W : Zadie Smith (2012)
The Testament of Mary : Colm Toibin (2012)
Dare Me : Megan Abbott (2012)
Benediction : Kent Haruf (2013)
10th December : George Saunders (2013)
Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel (2013)
Lila : Marilynne Robinson (2014)
Fourth of July Creek : Smith Henderson (2014)
The Blazing World : Siri Hustvedt (2014)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing : Eimear McBride (2014)
Another Great Day at Sea : Geoff Dyer (2014)
Our Souls at Night : Kent Haruf (2015)
Between the World & Me : Ta-Nehisi Cotes (2015)
Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin (2015)
The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson (2015)
Willnot : James Sallis (2016)
Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett (2016)

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Books of the Year, 2015

  • Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel
  • Between the World and Me : Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Our Souls At Night : Kent Harouf
  • The End of Vandalism / Hunts in Dreams / Pacific : Tom Drury
  • Assorted Fire Events / The Secret Goldfish : David Means
  • Orchid Blue/ Blue in the Night / The Blue Tango : Eoin McNamee
  • The Darkling Spy/ The Whitehall Mandarin / The Midnight Swimmer : Edward Wilson

According to my notes, I’ve read close to 60 books this year, fiction and non-fiction, and there are two that stand out from the rest: both non-fiction and both books about America, American lives, and distinguished by a quality of writing and sense of purpose that make them difficult to set aside or to forget.

David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service is a sequel to The Good Soldiers, his account of the time he spent with an Infantry Battalion on the front line in Baghdad. This later book describes, in painful and compassionate detail, the difficulties that some of those soldiers faced when they returned home.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is written in the form of a letter to his son, a letter in which he describes what it is like – what it has been like since the days of slavery – to be a black person in America. “Here,” he writes at one point, “is what I would like you to know: in America it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”

In comparison, none of the fiction I read had the same vividness or power.

But there were good things, nonetheless. Discoveries, too. I picked up Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism because Jon McGregor’s name was on the cover and he had written a foreward, and I’ve learned to take McGregor’s recommendations seriously. After that I read all the Drury I could lay my hands on and enjoyed them all, Hunts in Dreams and Pacific, the other two Grouse County novels set in the rural mid-West, especially.

At first you read Drury – this was my experience, at least – with a sense of precarious enjoyment; the characters are unbelievable and yet all too believable, they behave in ways that are unpredictable but make a kind of sense, pulling the narrative in directions that confound and confuse yet seem sort of okay, sort of right. This oddness – their oddness – seems to be holding them at a distance rather than encouraging us into any strong sympathy, but then sitting us down on our backsides with a thwack when we realise, as the end approaches, that we’re more emotionally involved than we might have thought possible around page 90 or so. How did he do that?

Kent Haruf was no new discovery. Our Souls at Night will be his last novel – a novella, really – finished, I imagine, not so long before he died. And it has, in its telling of a friendship and brief affair between two ageing people, more than a strong sense of mortality. Like all of Haruf’s work, it is tender and unflinching and written in prose that is direct and evocative. I know I shall re-read this and his earlier books with continuing pleasure.

Three other discoveries: Eoin McNamee’s overlapping crime & conspiracy novels set in Northern Ireland – Orchid Blue, Blue is the Night and The Blue Tango; Edward Wilson’s espionage novels – The Darkling Spy, The Whitehall Mandarin and The Midnight Swimmer (thanks to Woody Haut for putting me on to these); and – quite brilliant, (most of) these – David Means’ short stories, collected in Assorted Fire Events and The Secret Goldfish. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Jon McGregor liked those, too.

And finally, with Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, a biography arranged around the work, and VW’s own diaries as my guide, I’ve begun re-reading Virginia Woolf’s novels in chronological order, a project that will continue, happily, next year.

Tom Drury – “Hunts in Dreams”

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I’ve written before about the American novelist, Tom Drury, here, and feel the need to do so again. In his introduction to the Old Street reissue of Drury’s first novel, The End of Vandalism, Jon McGregor warns potential readers of the dangers of becoming obsessed with Drury’s writing, and that seems to be what has happened to me. Sticking to chronological order, I next read The Black Brook, only parts of which worked for me, it certainly didn’t cast the same kind of spell [the difficult second novel?] but with Hunts in Dreams, Drury is back on track – and back in the same territory as The End of Vandalism, obscure, small-town Ohio – and I was captivated once more.

He plays, it seems to me, pretty much the same writerly trick, casting us more or less adrift amidst a small welter of inter-connecting, or more usually, not-quite-connecting, characters, confuses us (and, sometimes, them) with assorted non-sequitors, roads not taken, missed opportunities and misunderstood conversations, before levelling out, tightening down and concentrating on a smaller number of characters and their evolving situations. The prose becomes more straightforward and seemingly controlled (though it’s always been that) at the same time as taking on a poetic edge which seems, at times, to veer towards the over-sentimental, while avoiding it by maintaining, below the surface, a constant sense of danger.

Take this passage from Hunts in Dreams: Octavia is about to run off with a man considerably older than herself and has persuaded her elder brother to drive her to meet him.

He left. Octavia stood beneath a larch tree, suitcase by her feet. In it she had packed clothes, bracelets, makeup, two sandwiches, and a journal of blank pages. She had never been able to write down her thoughts, which had seemed so run-of-the-mill. Now things would be different.
Her brother stopped a half-mile away. The taillights shone on a hill. Probably he wanted to be sure that her ride would come. He could be very sweet in his way. Her whole family appeared benign, if misguided, in retrospect. Her mother would take it hardest, would feel so cheated. But November would come, December, snow would fly from the rooftops, and she would know her daughter was gone.
Jerry arrived just when it seemed he would not. He took her hands and held them out and asked her to let him look at her. She wore a CPO coat over a black dress. The wind gusted in the branches.
“Where should we go?” he said.
She pushed strands of hair from her forehead. “Texas?”
“Why there?”
“I heard it was nice,” she said softly, the toe of her shoe turning in the grass.

 

“If you read this book properly,” says McGregor, “you will become invested in these lives. And this investment will be something you have created, as a reader, in collaboration with Drury. You will have given life to these people, only to let them experience pain. You will have allowed yourself to feel something like love for a group of complicated characters who do messy and regrettable and sometimes unlikeable things.”

The young and naive Octavia and her middle-aged postman lover in Texas – how do we think that’s going to work out exactly? She’s moving on from a largely dysfunctional family to an impossibly romantic fairy tale dream; Jerry’s already thinking if we get two good years that’s enough. He’s likely right, two years at best, but he could be wrong, things might fall apart before they reach the border. Or, then again, the thing about dreams, in life as well as fiction, just occasionally they have a way of coming true.

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Is it always the women in Drury’s novels who are unsatisfied, who are forever searching for something different, something better, more fulfilling? [Like the Brangwen women at the beginning of The Rainbow? Like women everywhere??] Joan is married to Jerry’s brother, Charles; she and Charles have a son, Micah, and she has a daughter, Lyris, who has only recently come to live with them. For some time, Joan has felt there is something missing in her life, something out of reach but which she feels the need to strive for. [It’s no coincidence that she has played Masha in a production of The Seagull]. When she leaves town for a working weekend away, Charles is afraid she might be contemplating having a brief affair. But it is more serious than that: she’s thinking of leaving.  She calls Charles and tells him she won’t be home on Monday; she won’t be home till spring.

She left the hotel with her suitcase in her hand. There was almost nothing in it, but she didn’t want to be the sort of woman who begins a new life without a suitcase.
The streets that had been empty yesterday were now very busy. Everyone had somewhere to go, and so did she, although she did not know where. Charles would tell the children, and there would be no going back now. He would tell them at the first chance, and with bitterness. If only she had kept Lyris as an infant instead of having her handed back so late, things would have been different. Yet they might all wait for her. Micah would; he was true-blue. And spring was not far away. It would be winter and then it would be spring. She wondered if she would keep her promise. It was easier to say “I’ll be home in the spring” than it was to say “I won’t be coming home.”

So many women on the edge of going; so many women with suitcases by their sides, in their hands, waiting at the kerb.

Makes me think of Nanci Griffith singing …

Bags are waiting in a cab downstairs
I’ve got a ticket in my pocket says I’ll make it out of here,
And I came by here just to tell you goodbye
I can see it in your face that you don’t want to know why;
I made up my mind late last night that I would leave your city behind.
Oh, and love is not in question when you’re holding the answer
In your cold heart and closed mind;
Oh, you got a cold heart and a closed mind.

Cold Hearts / Closed Minds : Nanci Griffith

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Tracy Thorn of Everything But The Girl singing …

Don’t talk to me in that familiar way
When the keys are in my hand;
Don’t say that everything is here to stay
And I must try to understand

Bittersweet : Tracey Thorn & Ben Watt

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Tom Drury & The End of Vandalism

I’d not heard of the American writer Tom Drury until his name popped up a New Yorker fiction podcast, on which Antonya Nelson chose to read the short story, “Accident at the Sugar Beet”. At first, I didn’t seem to be enjoying it very much and then I was. Oddly anecdotal, sort of comic without being laugh out loud, a bunch of folk somewhere in the middle of rural Iowa living lives that never quite seemed to connect. Hmm …

But the name stuck. Touring the fiction floor of Charing Cross Foyles, it jumped out. Tom Drury: The End of Vandalism, with an introduction by Jon McGregor. The last time I read a book recommended by McGregor it was John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun. ‘Nuff said.

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His introduction begins with a warning …

If you read The End of Vandalism you will become one of those people who try and foist it upon other people, your eyes shining with the unsettling delight of having lived through it. You will become one of those people who quote the best sentences, flicking through the pages to where you have them underlined.

Well, maybe … and maybe McGregor’s favourite sentences aren’t the same as mine, so I’m not sure if I’m as keen to get out and proselytise on behalf of the book quite so wholeheartedly. But … but …

But there was this problem I had to shake off, something along the lines of – this is all very well, diverting enough, entertaining on a fairly superficial level – small town folk leading small town lives, forever engaging in conversations which seem to be made up almost entirely of non sequiturs – but is it any more than that, and if it’s not … ?

If you live in the real world (McGregor argues), where life stalls and lurches forward with little real pattern and where the textures of our relationships accumulate moment by moment, then this is a novel you will recognise as being crammed with narrative. These are not just quirky rural anecdotes Drury is spinning out for us. These are intricate, interconnected stories of the big things that happen in people’s lives; the failures and successes of relationships, businesses and families, the making and thwarting of plans.

From the myriad of characters, two stand out –Louise Darling, a photographer’s assistant, and Dan Norman, the county sheriff – their relationship, at first tenuous, almost accidental, taking on an admirable resilience as it assumes a central position in the novel’s – and our  – concerns. Drury has pulled off a brilliant trick: somehow, between all of the rigamarole of the novel’s seemingly casual unfolding, Drury has given us a relationship we both believe in and care about, so that when, a little over three-quarters of the way through the novel, the tone stiffens, shrugs off its humour, and places the now pregnant Louise in mortal jeopardy, each turning of the page becomes an act of will, an act of wishing.

So, McGregor wins. Drury wins. I’ve already started reading the novel, parts of it, again. It was Drury’s first, originally published in 1994, and Old Street Publishing, who brought out this handsome reissue, are set to publish the second, Hunts in Dreams, in July.

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Not soon enough.