This second set of books started about a year ago. Now into my course, the shift is obvious. Almost exclusively first novels, my notes are geared towards what I can get out of it from a writing perspective, rather than as a reader. Which is the great thing about books. Maybe your interest is psychology, or politics, or sociology, or human nature, or relationships. Whatever you want to learn more about, you can find it in a novel. All of human nature is encompassed between those pages.
I also challenged myself a lot more. Bolaño’s 2666 was over 1100 pages long, which in itself is an achievement, without his repetition or circling prose, adding to the difficulty of reading it. Books written in second person ‘you’ (Bright Lights, Big City), ‘classic’ novels that I felt I should have read (The Handmaid’s Tale, Rabbit, Run), novels that play around with form and structure (A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Rehearsal). This was me actively seeking unusual books, ways of writing I was unfamiliar with, in order to stretch and challenge my own writing. They took me to unusual places and allowed me to empathise with characters I couldn’t have conceived of without reading them.
Here also, you see the germination of ideas for my own novel. Books about women, challenging perspectives, plot twists, discrimination, sex, all of the elements that would come to play a part in my book. It’s only now that I am looking at this list, that I realise this is where it came from. I attribute my idea, the moment I knew what to write about, to an article I read, but this list shows the development of my reading and ideas and how they influenced so much of what was to become an incredibly long and fraught journey.
Where do books take you? To other people’s lives, to distant lands, to psychological states of mind, to pieces of yourself you didn’t realise were there. Please use the list for yourself, to discover more about the things you didn’t know you had questions about.
26. A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, Marina Lewycka. Effortlessly funny with incredibly over-the-top characters and an absurd narrative that somehow manages to be genuine. Lovely read.
27. The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton. Impressive debut which shifts between real life and performance, Through saxophone lessons and a theatre school we see the development of a fleet of young schoolgirls (primarily) and one schoolboy, and their struggles into the adult world of sexuality, performance and death. Easy to see how she went on to win the Booker.
28. On Beauty, Zadie Smith. A study of beauty. Men’s weakness to it and women’s jealousy or coveting of it are the levers through which the main elements of the plot unfold. I would have liked the ‘beautiful’ characters to be a bit less obvious, and I’m not sure that the men’s responses to them is particularly flattering to their gender, but it is interesting to explore the way we can be subverted, tricked and blinded by what is basically a trick of genetics and social fashion/norms. The prose style is quite dense, sometimes a little too descriptive in the way it picks out the detail of every thing we see, but this is typical of her style and something I personally enjoy as I love describing things to much as well. An engaging and rich novel.
29. After Such Kindness, Gaynor Arnold. Based on the ‘true’ story of Lewis Carroll. The prose distances the reader from events, even the most upsetting, leaving us emotionally attached to the characters but, in the same way as they are, not truly engaged with their feelings. The main protagonist is allowed resolution and some tying up of loose ends but I rather liked the way her ending was dissatisfactory, as it tied in with the whole novel’s ideas about the subjugation of women and the role of class and religion in suppressing free choice and happiness.
30. Becoming Strangers, Louise Dean. A compelling and emotionally rich novel. We are on a Caribbean island with two couples, one middle-aged, the man dying of cancer, and one elderly, the woman, we later find out, suffering from Alzheimer’s. The men form an unlikely friendship and they spend what will be for all of them a ‘last’ holiday together exploring the way they see the world, and how they want to leave it, in the vacuum of a generic holiday resort, albeit a very luxurious one. It has the potential to be incredibly sentimental but the feelings and nuances of the characters are handled with a light touch which makes their experiences genuinely touching rather than trite or unbelievable.
31. Incendiary, Chris Cleave. An effective and gripping novel. In an imagined ‘present’ where a major terrorist attack has taken place on home soil, a nightmarish dystopia is imagined where everyone’s lives are dictated by the threat of terrorism. This is all told from the point of view of a working-class mother who loses her son and her husband in the tragedy.
32. The Child that Books Built, Francis Spufford. Interesting review of the books read from childhood to adulthood. Focuses particularly on fantasy and sci-fi books and what they allow us to explore about ourselves. Makes the writer think about what their book can offer not only in terms of pleasure and diversion but how they can allow your reader to understand themselves better and how your book can open parts of themselves they usually deny or avoid.
33. Where They Were Missed, Lucy Caldwell. Fundamentally a coming-of-age novel set during the height of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. This lends weight to what is effectively the story of a young girl who loses her younger sister in a car accident and has an alcoholic mother who has a nervous breakdown.
34. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis. A light-hearted look at post-war Britain struggling with its own identities and class divisions. ‘Jim’ is stuck at a University somewhere in provincial England that he really doesn’t want to be. He despises his senior professor and the whole establishment created around the academic world.
35. Rabbit, Run, John Updike. An indulgent first-person narrative of a narcissistic male in America. While Updike’s sentences and description are achingly beautiful, it’s hard to read such a misogynistic character without being put off. One of the ‘GAM’s (Great American Misogynists), according to David Foster Wallace.
36. The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst. A novel that spans five years in the mid-80s, following a young gay man coming to terms with his sexuality who lives with the family of an MP, which highlights the decadence and cruelty of the rich and right-wing.
37. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney. Written in confrontational second person ‘you,’ a novel set in the 80s in New York City. We follow Nick into a drug-fuelled haze of clubs and bars with his erratic friend Tad. Effectively the process of his breakdown and ultimate shaky recovery.
38. Poppy Shakespeare, Clare Allen. Now a course tutor at City University. Essentially an incredibly clever critique of the mental health system. We see the arrival of a ‘normal’ person (Poppy Shakespeare) through the eyes of an unnamed (’N’) character. The overall thrust of those inside the hospital is to stay inside and on benefits for as long as possible and avoid the outside world. Poppy brings a new perspective into this setting and questions the very basis of the system that keeps them there. This is all set with the backdrop of the 1980s and changes to social welfare and mental healthcare reforms.
39. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway. This is where we get that famous quote; “One true sentence,” of which Hemingway is well known for. As an old man looking back on his young self, he can arguably be a little sentimental, but weathered with his adult cynicism and knowledge of things to come which lessens this. He paints an idyllic picture of Paris in the early 19th century, populated with bohemian writers, poets and painters, cafes, goats, and lots of wine.
40. 2666, Roberto Bolano. A behemoth of a novel. It starts of in pursuit of a random writer that very few people have heard of but some believe to be a genius. It hangs around by the border of Mexico looking at raped dead girls for about 400 pages and then moves to the Second World War. It is wandering and gigantic, and within itself questions the notion that we can’t read/write big meandering novels anymore that have fluid prose and leave open more questions than answers.
41. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. The most impressive thing about this novel is the sheer scale, range and boldness in terms of the varying POV and timespan it includes. We jump around in time, into different voices, characters, we cover first, second and third person, have a chapter written entirely in powerpoint slides. It’s an interesting example of how the way a book is written can have far more impact than what the book is actually about.
42. The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville. Painstaking detail accompanies grinding embarrassment in this tribute to all things dull. A wonderful example of how humans, in all their imperfections, can be beautiful.
43. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. Dystopian classic that takes feminine subjugation to its utmost extreme. A pained look at restrictions and rules, and the effect they have on those they are enforced upon. Cleverly conceived and beautifully executed.
44. Beauty, Raphael Selbourne. A slightly cliched exploration of a young Muslim girl living in England.
45. Mockingbird, Kathryn Erskine. YA novel about a young girl with Asperger’s coping with the death of her brother.
46. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon. Tight prose with elegant wording, interesting characters and a plot that takes us into hidden worlds. All the elements needed for a good first novel. He manages to toe the line between being verbose and staying in the head of his character. Young boy questioning his sexuality in a city in the USA wouldn’t grab me as a book I would want to read, so it’s interesting that the quality of his prose and possible the pace/plot kept me going.
47. Electric Michaelangelo, Sarah Hall. Richly evocative prose. She is intimate about the features of her characters and spends a lot of time and prose going over and over the same facets of a character in slightly different ways to ensure the reader can see them clearly. I found it a bit waffly in places, but I can appreciate that it was done stylistically.
48. Sleep With Me, Joanna Briscoe. A good example of how a book can be compelling and almost thriller-esque, while still managing to tread the ‘literary’ line, just. I would want to see more exuberant prose and less ‘action,’ but that may be personal preference.
49. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. A very cleverly constructed book.The way the POV was presented varied, which lent it different amounts of validity. Arguably ‘diary’ entries were seemingly the most ‘honest,’ whereas straight POV narration where the character admits they are lying interestingly allows for a lot to be hidden from the reader, even though we are in first person. The high concept plot twist worked earlier, but it was perhaps too much to do it twice without it descending into some sort of awful farce.
50. Apple Tree Yard, Lousie Doughty. A well constructed, compelling novel. The secret world we have access to is the world of academia, and potentially the world of a spy. This seems very highbrow and interesting at first, but perhaps the most telling twist is that they are in fact very normal people that have effectively been creating fantasies about themselves in order to avoid the mundanity of everyday life.