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.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
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
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
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.
Harvest by Jim Crace
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”.
L’Assommoir by Emile Zola
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.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
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.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien
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. Do Not Say We Have Nothing 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,
The Cove by Cynan Jones
It’s hard to put into words just how special this book is. From the first page The Cove 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.
The Vegetarian by Hang Kang
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.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
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.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West
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 of All Passion Spent is a recently widowed 88 year old who rejects all her children’s plans and sets her own course. It’s such a beautiful, elegant and thoughtful portrait I look forward to reading the novel all over again.
Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book.
This month our master Kate wants us to begin with Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, the first of his books in a saga based in San Francisco. This isn’t a book I’ve read though I did start to read the first in the series once. I know its hugely popular but it wasn’t to my taste.
So I’m switching to a different city for my first book.Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life is a collection of articles in which journalist and university professor Michael Pronko reflects on the character of this city. He considers the idiosyncracies of its inhabitants and their predilection for maps, drink vending machines, noodles and posh shopping bags. It’s a fascinating exploration of facets of a city that tourists would be unlikely to see or understand.
From there it’s an easy leap to a different representation of Toyko, this time seen through the eyes of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Norwegian Wood takes us into the world of the city’s nightclubs, bars and even a porn cinema, a world that provides a wonderful contrast to the books other setting of a sanitorium in Kyoto surrounded by snow-clad hills. It was my first – and to date only – experience of Murakami’s work and as far as I can tell isn’t typical but I was so glad a colleague recommended it to me.
But enough of the Japanese landscape, let’s move to somewhere closer to home which also boasts some fine specimens of trees though I’m not entirely sure what kind of tree Thomas Hardy had in mind with his novel Under the Greenwood Tree. An English oak I suspect. This novel is a celebration of the pastoral life in the Victorian era but although Hardy shows this in terms of continuity and harmony there are points at which the plot involves a confrontation between the old and new orders. The Mellstock choir, for example, which provides one of the two plot lines, are threatened by the vicar’s attempt to replace them with a new mechanical church organ.
The clash of new and old also figures in the novel that is probably the finest example of mid nineteenth century realist fiction: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is novel that teems with ideas, about relationships, ambition, social mobility, integrity to name just a few. But Eliot also showed a new spirit of the age with political reformers going head to head against the established gentry, how ambitious young doctors with their antipathy to blood-letting were seen as upstarts and how the new railway age was feared by rural workers. You won’t find a finer novel…..
I wonder what Hardy and Eliot would have made of my next book? Harvest by Jim Crace is also about disruption to the rhythm of the countryside. Crace isn’t sentimental about rural life but he show that the pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise” is dangerous. The threat in his novel comes in the form of enclosure of common land where, for generations, villagers have tended to their flocks. But their lord and master decides they’ll be more profitable if he turns them over to crops – throwing the villagers out and leaving them without a source of income. This is a novel which verges on poetry at times when it speaks about the connection of man and his environment. I don’t understand why the Booker judges overlooked this for the prize in 2013.
They also (equally unbelievably) overlooked my final book in this chain. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes us to China in the build up to the protest and subsequent massacre at Tianenman Square, Bejing in 1989. This is the background against which she sets her tale of three highly talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the Communist-led government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order. This is a novel that is breathtaking in its scope. If you enjoyed Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, then I highly recommend Thien’s novel.
And with that we’ve returned to a city landscape though one that couldn’t be more different than San Francisco. We’ve also had a little sojourn in English woods and fields. Where would your chain have taken you?
…. rain or shine, the earth abides, the land endures, the soil will persevere for ever and a day.
That quote from Jim Crace’s latest book Harvest might lull you into thinking this novel is a homage to the timeless quality of the countryside. It isn’t any more than it is a sentimentalised evocation of England’s green and pleasant land or even a tribute to the symbiotic relationship between the land and the generations of dwellers for whom the land has provided a means of existence.
Instead it’s a deeply thoughtful story that examines the human consequences of a rupture in a traditional way of life resulting from a pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
The setting is a small rural English community known simply as The Village where life follows the ceaseless cycle of sowing,planting and harvesting required to eke out even the barest of subsistence living. The Village exists in a bubble where the regular routine is seldom troubled by anything beyond the ancient oaks and dry stone walls that mark the reaches of the settlement.
Even if the inhabitants are not fully aware of it, this is a way of life that is threatened. As the novel opens, smoke wisps are still rising from the ruins of a stable at the local manor house, – the result, the villagers believe, of an arson attack. Barely have they recovered from that shock when there is a further signal of a disturbing nature. New comers have arrived, taking advantage of a law that gives them the right to settle within the village’s boundaries as long as they can put up a rudimentary shelter and send up smoke before they are caught. The events become conflated in the minds of the villagers fearful that the year’s disastrous harvest will have to stretch even further.
What the villagers do not know is that there is an more profound change on the horizon. The manor lord Master Kent has always taken a paternalistic attitude towards his tenant but now his claim to the estate has been revoked. The new lord intends to enclose all the fields, turning them from crop growing to the more profitable venture of sheep grazing. The villagers who have tended these fields for generations will be forced out when the land they farm in common is enclosed for sheep. When he arrives to take stock of his new estate complete with his entourage of strong- arm men, aggression, violence and death soon ensue.
Our guide to these events is one Walter Thirsk, an old boyhood friend and former servant of Master Kent. Although he’s lived in the village for a dozen years or so after marrying one of the villagers, they still view him as an outsider. Walter has a deep and abiding affection for the fields and oaks around him, viewing them as a form of Eden. But he has no illusions about the way nature can be inflexible and stern, presenting hardships for those who make their living from the land. He is a realist who knows that the world around him is changing and that it will be to the detriment of his community. For all the new master’s talk of a new order “to all our advantages” and the prospect of a life without hard work and where uncertain grain harvests will be swapped for the predictability of sheep farming, The effects of enclosure for him will be “to throw a halter around our neck.”
Walter sees the economic and human consequences of enclosure. But he also sees it as a rupture of man’s connection to his past.
We’re used to looking out and seeing what’s preceded us, and what will also outlive us. … Those woods that linked us to eternity will be removed… That grizzled oak which we believe is so old it must have come from Eden to our fields will be felled and routed out. That drystone wall put up before our grandpa’s time …. will be brought down entirely ….until there is no trace of it. We’ll look across these fields and say, ‘This land is so much younger than ourselves.”
Crace relates this story in language that at times borders on poetry. There is a close attention to detail – we get many names of hedgerow plants for example which might enable some experts to actually pinpoint the location or even the era. And some wonderfully evocative phrases such as the Turd and Turf, an area which does double duty as both latrine and burial ground. Crace has a real feel for the landscape – its shape, its sounds and its smells – but even more powerfully rendered his is appreciation for man’s relation to the land.
A superb novel, one of the best I’ve read all year. Immediately on finishing it, I wanted to start it all over again. If there is any justice it will be named as the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
September 2013 will go down in history in the BookerTalk household. It’s the first time since I started reading the Booker Prize listed titles, that I read only Booker nominees. Nothing from my Classics Club list, nothing from my World of Literature challenge list, nothing from my TBR mountain (will it ever get any smaller???).
It wasn’t planned that way. I’m not one of those people brave enough to embark on reading all the longlisted titles as soon as they are announced. Nor even brave enough to attempt to read all shortlisted titles before the final. I could do it if there wasn’t the inconvenient matter of having to go to work each day which does rather cut into ones reading time. There is also the rather practical issue that these are titles are all in hardback so it gets expensive to buy the lot.
So I threw myself on the mercy of the local library and requested whatever they had thought to acquire – and as I said in an earlier Sunday Salon post, they all came into stock more or less the same time so had to be ready pretty quickly.
Which is how I spent September reading four Booker nominees and starting a fifth. In no particular order, I read
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore was a thoroughly enjoyable novel from the 2012 shortlist that I never got around to reading last year. I remember hearing the synopsis and thinking that a whole novel about a man walking to a lighthouse didn’t exactly sound wonderful. How wrong I was.
Conversely, I’d heard such good things about Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, one of the 2013 longlisted titles that I felt sure I would enjoy it. Sadly I did but only in part – or to be more precise I enjoyed only the first half. The remaining 200 plus pages were disappointingly ‘just ok’. I can understand why it never made it onto the shortlist.
Likewise, my third read, Unexploded by Alison MacLeod, didn’t move from longlist to shortlist status this year. This is a novel set in the seaside resort of Brighton in the first year of World War 2 when Britain is gripped by a fear that they will be invaded by Hilter’s forces any day. MacLeod looks at the repercussions of the war at a very human level, focusing on just one couple and how the conflict ignites elements in their marriage that have simmered for years. She does a wonderful job of re-creating the confusing atmosphere of dread and excitement. Well worth reading though, again, I didn’t think it was shortlist calibre.
Which brings me to the cream of the crop —the novel that turns out to be the bookmaker’s favourite for the prize, Jim Crace’s Harvest. I can’t compare it to the other nominees since I haven’t read any of those but should Crace walk off with the prize then he will have richly deserved the accolade. It’s set in an un-named village in rural England at an unspecified date but likely to be fifteenth century. This is a community whose way of life is under threat from an absentee landlord who believes the future lies in sheep not arable farming and if that means a few dozen families lose their livelihoods and their homes, well tough luck. This green and pleasant land is further threatened by some ominous newcomers who have come to claim their rights of settlement. There is drama but the power of the novel lies more in the way Crace gets you to reflect on the past and on the question of the ability of humans to endure change.
This is one of the best novels I have read yet this year.
So now September is over, what lies ahead in October? I’ve started reading another Booker longlisted title – TransAtlantic – Colum McCann’s first novel following his National Book Award success with Let the Great World Spin. Very shortly I shall be relinquishing contemporary fiction for some older texts as I start preparing for the Plagues, Witches and War course on historical fiction delivered via Coursera. The course will be looking at historical novels from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, some classic, others less well known. It looks as if its going to go at a very fast pace so for the next 8 weeks I won’t have much time to spare on anything other than historical fiction.
Listening to one of the recent episodes of the Readers Book Based Banter podcast got me thinking about my own reading habits. The co-hosts for the show were chatting about whether the type of books they read changes with the seasons. Simon’s interests get darker as the evenings draw in apparently —so lots more of the big Victorian classics it seems are on his horizons as we go into Autumn and Winter.
This isn’t something I’ve ever thought about before. I do make mental lists of books I want to read in the few months ahead but I’m not conscious that I choose them based on the season.
Only recently we were seeing promotions for ‘the perfect summer book’ and ‘summer reading recommendations’ but it’s a concept I’ve never really understood. What does that phrase ‘a summer book’ mean anyway? Something that is set during a summer period for instance or does it denote a particular subject matter or something that is light and frothy so you can read it on a sun lounger with eyes half closed?.
My reading habits don’t really change through the year – I read what I feel like reading at the time, regardless of what the calendar says or the thermometer. So if I feel like reading a novel set at Christmas but the sun is shining and officially it is summer, then I’ll read it rather than save it up for later in the year.
But my current reading experience has shown that there are times when reading within the season has its advantage. By absolute co-incidence I just happen to be reading a novel that couldn’t be more closely matched to this time of the year – it’s Harvest by Jim Crace (shorlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize). It’s a wonderful evocation of country life sometime before the industrial revolution, marking the cycle of growing, reaping and sowing. Right now that cycle is also in evidence in the lanes around my home with farm vehicles of all description brought into service as the farmers gather in the last of this year’s crops. A delightful confluence of fiction and reality. I might not change my reading habits radically as a result but just enjoy it when it does.
What about your reading habits —do you read different books depending on the season? Did you have a summer reading summer plan – if so, on what basis did you choose the books?
PS: If you want to hear the Book Based Banter discussion, it’s episode 82 – you can download via ITunes or the webpage – http://bookbasedbanter.co.uk/thereaders/