What did you recently finish reading?
Dignity by Alys Conran
I’ve only just woken up to the fact that we’re a few days away from the end of a decade. It wasn’t until I saw Simon’s post on his favourite books of the decade that light began to dawn that soon we’ll be in the Twenty Twenties.
That got me thinking what I would include in my list of favourites.
I thought initially I’d choose one book for each year but that plan didn’t last long. Until I started this blog, I never kept track of what I was reading so there’s a black hole before 2012. There are a few books I’ve recorded in Goodreads for 2010 and 2011 but that’s probably guesswork on my part.
So instead I’m going to build a list of the 10 books I’ve enjoyed most from across all the years. Just one point to clarify though– they were not necessarily published this decade, just that I read them over the last ten years. My favourite book of 2019 may be in among the ten – but it might not be…..
I’ve gone for books that are not simply good, but outstanding. The principal test was whether it was a book I would want to re-read.
2012: Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s terrific award-winning Wolf Hall, a book that breathed new life into the well-known story of King Henry VIII and his marital problems. It is the second part of her trilogy charting the rise and fall of the King’s right hand man Thomas Cromwell. I was blown away by Wolf Hall but Bring Up the Bodies is even more powerful. Now I’m counting down the weeks until the third episode The Mirror and The Light is published in March 2020
2013: For years I thought I wouldn’t like John Steinbeck. Cannery Row changed my mind. The mixture of humour, the warmth and affection for his characters and lightens what is a fairly bleak tale of a motley gang of down and outs. I know this is not typical Steinbeck but it’s still encouraged me to give his more famous novels a go.
Another novel I read in 2013, the year in which it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Harvest is an exquisitely written novel about the threat to a village and a way of life. Grace doesn’t sentimentalise the countryside but he does shine a light on the human consequences of a rupture in a traditional way of life resulting from a pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
No surprise to find my favourite novelist making an appearance on this best of the decade list. L’Assommoir is a dark story; stark and emotional; that traces a woman born into poverty and how she tries to find happiness. She succeeds but this being Zola, you know it can’t last. It has some tremendous set pieces set in the working class district of Paris.
I read The English Patient in 2015 and it remains one of my favourite Booker Prize winners to date. Set in Italy during World War 2, it features four people who are scarred emotionally and physically by the war. They come together in a deserted villa, hoping there to find some peace. This is a novel to read slowly and to savour.
Canadian author Madeleine Thien takes us to China to show the effect of the Cultural Revolution on ordinary people, in this case three talented musicians. Thein covers a vast swathe of history but it never feels like she’s forcing the facts onto you. The book ends with the horrific standoff between the state and its citizens in Tianenman Square. It makes a great companion read to Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,
It’s hard to put into words just how special this book is. From the first page it hypnotises you with an intense and closely observed tale of a kayaker struck by lightning. Injured and adrift all he wants is to get back to to land and to his pregnant girlfriend.
This was the most memorable book I read in 2017. It’s a really disturbing novel set in South Korea focusing on a young wife who decides she will no longer eat meat. It’s a decision that will lead to her mental disintegration. The final section of The Vegetarian is unforgettable.
This is the only non fiction book to make it only my list. At the age of 50, Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lost their business and their home. Moth was diagnosed with a serious brain condition. With little money and no prospects they decided to embark on a 600 mile walk along a coastal path, sleeping under the stars. The Salt Path is a lovely blend of observations on nature and attitudes to homelessness but if the latter sounds bleak, rest assured that Raynor Winn has a great sense of humour.
Older people often get stereotyped in fiction so it was a delight to come across a novel that rejects the idea you lose your ability to know your own mind when you age. The main character is a recently widowed 88 year old who rejects all her children’s plans and sets her own course. Its such a beautiful, elegant and thoughtful portrait I look forward to reading the novel all over again.
If you were asked to think of a court case involving the thorny question of censorship and fiction, what books or authors would come to mind? D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover perhaps? Or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary?
Coming more up to date, how about the 1933 obscenity trial concerning James Joyce’s Ulysses or the 1961 case involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer which went all the way to the US Supreme Court?
No less significant, yet less well known, is the 1888 prosecution of Henry Vizetelly, the elderly head of a family publishing business in London.
His crime: publishing English language editions of some of the most provocative and “vile” novels written by Emile Zola. His punishment: prison, the collapse of his health and the ruin of his business.
Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne is a fictionalised account of the history of this case. Using court and Parliamentary records, letters and newspaper reports, Horne weaves a narrative showing how Vizetelly became the target of the National Vigilance Society – a group of moral vigilantes who wanted to rid England of “vile literature”.
According to the society young girls were being led to prostitution because of cheap translated versions of books by Emile Zola. In 1888 they launched a prosecution for obscene libel against Henry Vizetelly, Zola’s British publisher.
Three titles from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series were used as evidence in the subsequent Old Bailey trial: Nana, The Soil (La Terre) and Piping Hot! (Pot Bouille). They were books, the court was told, that featured rapes, pregnancies, menstruation, nudity and women’s sexuality.
Against such an attack Vizetelly’s argument about the artistic merits of these work by “a great French writer”, held no sway.
Emile Zola’s book La Terre “is a filthy book from end to end,” the chief prosecuting counsel tells the jury. “I will not call what I am about to read literature. There can be no question of literature with regard to this garbage.”
He and his sons were ordered to cease publication and sale of the offending books. Faced with financial ruin, they tried to ‘soften’ the translations to make them more acceptable. But even that wasn’t enough – Vizetelly was hauled back into court and this time, the result was a prison sentence.
Naturally Horne devotes a large proportion of the book to the legal case but doesn’t drag her narrative down with exhaustive details of the legal arguments used in the Old Bailey trials.
Her approach is rather to focus on how the whole saga affects the people involved, particularly Vizetelly and his son Ernest who was translator of Zola’s texts. Horne takes us into the heart of the family, ‘listening in’ to their conversations and their differing views on how to respond to the accusations. Vizetelly comes across as a proud man who believes right is on his side and will not listen to his son’s voice of caution.
By the time he finishes his sentence he is a frail old man.
He is a free man but he is broken. The many weeks of poor hygiene and haphazard medical attention in insalubrious quarters have ruined him physically as surely as the court’s verdict ruined him financially.
The sections of the book that take place in France were actually more interesting than the court case. Most of these are set in Zola’s home, a very large country villa expanded to include a “Nana tower” and a “Germinal Tower” and reveal much about his process of writing.
Apparently after a daily walk, Emile Zola would change into his writing clothes – a version of “peasant’ clothes chosen so they didn’t cause itches and thus distract him. He knew exactly the trajectory of the book he was currently working upon. He had done a preliminary plan and research (often that took him longer to complete that did the actual writing). His pace was so measured that he could predict how long each book will take him to write.
Emile Zola didn’t emerge from this book as a very likeable man. He never lent any support to the Vizetelly, instead actually telling a journalist that he would be pleased if the prosecution succeeded. He would prefer, he said, that people read his books in the original French instead of being sold in “wretchedly done translations to the uneducated who cannot comprehend me.” Ouch…
Zola and the Victorians reveals a fascinating episode in British publishing history. It pitted moral outrage (and more than a dash of hypocrisy) against literary merits, a clash which continued right through to the watershed trial of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960.
Less engaging is the way in which Thorne tells the tale. The mixing of present and past tenses irritated me enormously, the reported conversations among the family seldom sounded authentic and the characters came across as one dimensional. I’m not regretting reading this book, if for no other reason than it’s given me an appetite to read those three Emile Zola novels for myself.
Zola and the Victorians was published in hardback by Maclehose Press in 2015. American-born Eileen Horne worked as a television producer for twenty years before setting up her own production company. She now combines writing adaptations for television and radio with teaching and editing.
Since reading Zola and The Victorians I’ve heard of another book about Zola that sounds interesting: The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen. It deals with a period in 1898 when Zola fled France because of hostility around his intervention in the Dreyfus case.
I have three books on the go at the moment.
Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne
In 1888, the works of Emile Zola were denounced in the House of Commons in London as “vile” and “diabolical”. Zola’s novels were – according to Samuel Smith of the National Smith – sold to “young girls in low bookshops”, leading directly to prostitution. Zola’s British publisher, Henry Vizetelly, was subsequently prosecuted and imprisoned, his health suffered and he was ruined financially.
Horne’s book reconstructs the events using court records, Hansard transcripts, letters, journalism. It’s a fascinating topic but I so wish Horne had done a better job of creating dialogue between the various members of the Vitzelly family.
One Woman Walks Wales by Ursula Martin
This is an extraordinary account of Ursula Martin’s decision to walk through Wales to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.
She initially set out to do a route that she could cover the six months between hospital appointments for check ups after her own treatment four years earlier. But she miscalculated and ended up walking around 3,700 miles. It took her 538 days on her own most of the time. Camping in the wild most nights (without a tent). Without equipment to make a hot meal.
I’ve reached only day two of her journey and already I’m thinking she must be crazy. But also far braver and more determined than me. I know she made it because this year she was trekking through Romania. In the snow.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
This is my book club selection for April. I wasn’t jumping for joy when I heard this had been selected. Not that I knew anything about the book, it was just the title that was off-putting.
But I’m pleasantly surprised by this tale of a couple whose life together is severed when he is accused and imprisoned for a crime they both know he did not commit.
This was an Oprah Book Club title in 2018 and apparently one of Barack Obama’s best books of 2018.
I enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her latest novel Dignity which was published at the beginning of April, is I think just as good.
It’s a tale of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse. Review coming soon……
I had this idea last week where I would identify the categories of books I like to/want to read, and then make my next reading choice based on a cycle of those categories. So I’d read a classic, say, then a book in translation, followed by a Welsh author, a prize winner, crime fiction or a ‘new this year’ book. I didn’t include non fiction since I tend to read those simultaneously with a work of fiction.
This sounded a good idea at the time but then the doubts began to creep in. Does it feel too rigid, not spontaneous enough. What if I’m not in the mood for that particular category?
And then I challenged myself: who says you have to stick 100% to that cycle? It’s your plan so you get to make up the rules.
Rule number 1: if I don’t feel in the mood for a particular category at the time, I can skip to the next category in the sequence. For example if I really don’t fancy a translated book, I can skip to a Welsh author……
Rule number 2: There isn’t one. There is only one rule. No sense in making this a burden.
All of this is a long winded answer to a simple question: what am I thinking of reading next? I don’t know exactly what I’ll read next. All I can say is that since I’ve just read a book in translation (Emile Zola’s The Kill), and then a Welsh author (Alys Conran), it will either be a prize winner or – if none of those take my fancy, a crime novel….
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?