For me, a good book is like a secret lover. At various points in the day thoughts lurking in the back of mind weave their way to the front of my consciousness, a photographic image, slightly cloudy, out of focus, comes forward, beckoning. I snatch guilty sessions with my lover in the daytime when I am supposed to be doing something else. But it’s at night, when the whole house is asleep and no one has a claim on my time, that I can abandon myself totally to my lover and immerse myself in a world that seems as real as my own.
I have books all over the house, piled up everywhere, even on the stairs, stacks of books for different moods and different trips. I collect books like some people collect designer clothes.
The books that I have enjoyed most this year are and are good to take on trips are:
MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Eleana Ferrante.
This book caused a sensation. I have never read such unanimous rave reviews. Who was Elena Ferrante? Was that even her real name? Why hasn’t she given an interview or sold the rights to Hollywood or Working Title. The mystery continues.
My Brilliant Friend the first book in the Neapoitan novels is set in a relentlessly grim backdrop of the poorest part of Naples in the 1950’s. The area is run with an iron fist by the Fagin like figure, Dom Achille. It follows the friendship of Elena, the studious, plain, bespectacled girl who is terrified she is going to inherit her mother’s limp and Lina, stunning, charismatic, daring and later dangerous. It follows their childhood through the dangerous neighbourhood, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and everyone their place. The power dynamic between the girls shifts constantly and this is the driving force of all four books. It’s as if their actions are always intended to send a message to the other. Things change when Elena goes onto secondary education, seeking a way out of the ghetto and some respite from the continual brutal acts that occur with regularity in the neighbourhood. She still has a desperate need for approval from Lina, but the latter’s natural brilliance has stalled; she runs her family’s shoe shop and resents Elena’s absence, scornful of her books and aspirations. Hers is a lazier, but to her safer journey. From the moment she slaps Dom Achille’s son’s face, her future as his wife is ordained, whilst his obsession with her means that she rises to become the queen bee of a drug dealing mafia family. The descriptions of the neighbourhood are visceral and terrifying. A major revelation to Elena is that when the girls pluck up courage and explore outside their comfort zone into the wider part of Naples, it is Elena who wants to continue and Lina who can’t relax and has to turn back. She can only exist within the safe code and rules of her neighbourhood. In the end she has no desire to escape. Another shift comes when, due to her school teacher, Elena takes her first holiday, to Ischia. The reader can feel her blossoming as the sun, the relaxation and the sea, open her up to the possibilities of a less grim way of life.
What I found fascinating about the Neapolitan novels is that this friendship throughout their whole life is far, far more important to them than their relationships with their boyfriends and husbands, who come and go, or even their children. I have never read such a successful portrayal of a passionate yet toxic friendship, and Ferrante writes with an insider knowledge. Theirs is a passionate friendship, overwhelming in its love, its compassion and its furious hatred. I loved this book and I lapped up the three books that follow it – ‘The Story of a New Name’, ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ and ‘The Lost Child’.
VILLA AMERICA by Lisa Klassman
This is a fabulous holiday book. Set in the 1920’s in the South of France at the Hotel du Cap. The story centers around the real life glamourous couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy, who installed themselves there every summer, with various hangers on, nannies and neglected children. Gerald and Sara, an odd but successful relationship that seemed to work for both of them, up to a point. The Murphys never did anything without great consideration as to the impact their clothes, their dinners, their décor would have on their admiring guests. Generous and stable compared to the various cast of characters that enter the book, the Murphys led the way for sophisticated Americans as to how to live with style and affected ease, like the most cultured Europeans but with more martinis, artifice and drama. I never tire of reading about the antics of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who were drawn to the Murphys and the South of France, like moths to a flame, and Klassman captures perfectly the fragility and danger that drew Scott to Zelda and the car crash that their marriage had become, through mental illness, creative frustration and alcoholism. The book captures the louche, cocktailed, bored set – but also the beauty, the heat, the joy of a sunset swim, the pure white sand and the idle, lazy summer days. Ernest Hemmingway appears half way through the book and is not treated with much affection by the author, and the book is less successful when the whole set drift off to the bullfights in Spain. But then another character infiltrates the set and acts as a catalyst, opening open up the cracks that are already present in the Murphy’s marriage, with devastating consequences. This is the South of France as it was, as it will never be again, perfectly captured. A delicious, intelligent read
THE POST OFFICE GIRL by Stefan Zweig
My discovery of Stephan Zweig has enriched my year. The most famous writer in the world between the two World Wars, Zweig had been largely forgotten until a recent reprint of all his books. Born in Vienna, highly educated and sensitive, Zweig was friends with Stravinsky and Zola and highly regarded by his contemporaries, as well as the public. Jewish, at one point he found himself living on the mountain directly opposite Adolf Hitler, and like many was in denial that his beloved country would fall and that he was going to be living life on the run for eternity. He finally took his own life in Brazil.
Stefan Zweig is the champion of the underdog, of the man who makes one fatal mistake, of the fragile, of the desperate, the lost, the outsider – and he is the master of every shadow of the human psyche. ‘Beware of Pity’ is probably my favourite of his books, but it was the Post Office Girl that led me to all his other novels and novellas.
Christine lives a very humdrum, desperately poor existence as a post office girl. Her days are numbingly familiar until an invitation arrives from her mother’s sister who, out of guilt for neglecting her dying sister, invites Christine on holiday. From the moment Christine gets on the train, lets the clean air touch her skin, she is transformed. She arrives, dazed, at a sophisticated ski resort. She feels like she is dreaming. At first, her aunt is kind and indulgent and showers her with gifts, changes her hairstyle, introduces her to scent and makeup, spoils her in every way. Christine’s sensitivity and nervous system are stretched to breaking by this rich, opulent existence. Her first smell of a pastry, her first touch of silk, her total childlike enthusiasm for all things and people around her, are infectious, her naivity charms her uncle and unknowingly she is irresistible to all the bored, jaded young men around her. But her aunt has a secret and her charm has caused jealousy from the bitchy girls who cannot understand where Christine has come from and are determined to unmask her, which threatens to bring the aunt’s secret out into the open. One tiny mistake of Christine’s in a reckless moment means that her days are numbered in this perceived as perfect, yet actually poisonous paradise. The abruptness of her dismissal, her lack of comprehension and then the aftermath of her literally being flung back to her old existence, without explanation, are truly heartbreaking. I will read this book every year, and although Zweig never published it, as he never felt content with the ending, and though it may be a flawed masterpiece I am so grateful to the publishers for deciding to release it. A must read.
SWEET CARESS by William Boyd
This book grabbed me from the start, the story of photojournalist Amory Clay. Boyd’s research and attention to detail made me sure that she was a real person but no, she is a fictional character. The story alternates between just about the remotest island you could find to live in the Outer Hebrides, with Amory, old and alone with a terminal illness and a whisky habit, and her life starting as a child growing up between the wars.
Born into a minor aristocratic family, Amory’s first memory is her father doing a handstand on the lawn. I thought ‘how charming’, the next chapter he picks her up from school and drives straight into a lake in an attempt to kill them both. This shocking event shapes her life. Everything shifts from under her, trust in men is not an option, and although her father becomes safely locked up in a mental hospital, a benign presence, lobotomized and pathetic, Amory always feels uneasy – and this sets her later unsatisfactory relationship with men, marriages to an alcoholic lord, an American newspaper tycoon and a French Colonel. She reminded me of Nancy Mitford in the way that both women are always the mistress not the wife. Amory loves her camera, preferring to observe life with great bravery and a great sense of adventure but she actually lives her personal life tentatively, free of commitment, always slightly unavailable, which later causes problems with her daughters. So with her camera fixed between her and the world, she starts life as a society photographer, quickly becomes bored and moves to Berlin, where her risky sexual pictures are abhorred by the public. Through her eyes Boyd takes her (and us) through the terrifying Oswald Mosley’s bid to bring Fascism to England, through the horror of World War Two, the shocking post-traumatic syndrome that her doomed, alcoholic future husband suffers, and finally the Vietnam war. One critic described Amory’s as a life well lived, with which I would agree, considering that she could have stayed at home and become a spinster. Good travelling read.
SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES by Caitlin Doughty
This is a very weird book to put on a travel book blog, as its subject is not exactly uplifting, as it is ‘Death’. Having been through the actual death of someone I deeply loved recently, after the last breath, I was so shocked as to how veiled and secretive the death industry is. I saw ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and a pile of ashes on the cover and I thought I want to embrace death, understand everything about it, as the nitty gritty details are still unspoken, barely mentioned topics – I don’t think if went to drinks party and announced I have read this great book about what happens to you when you die, that I would get a rapturous response. The death industry is big business and particularly in America, where practices are bizarre to say the least. Tony Richardson made a film of Evelyn Waugh’s book ‘The Loved One’ about the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, he must have been in a mischievous mood as Hollywood loves a happy ending, not death! Needless to say, the film bombed.
The story follows someone like me who is terrified of death, so she gets a job in a crematorium to face her fear. Heartfelt, funny and very moving Caitlin Doughty argues that our terror of the taboo subject of death actually warps the way that we live our lives. The details that follow, I will leave you to discover for yourself. But Caitlin is now a licensed mortician of an alternative crematorium. I found it strangely uplifting, maybe I am weird.
HIS BLOODY PROJECT by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize this year, I was gripped by this book. The story starts with the arrested and self confessed murderer in his cell, talking to a psychiatrist about what brought him to commit a brutal triple murder. He is asked to write his story down, and the doctors are amazed by the eloquence of this uneducated crofter. You are taken back to the beginning of Roderick Macrae’s life in 1869 in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands, where
Roderick’s father barely ekes out a living. Life would have gone on forever like this, with Roderick assuming his father’s role, but a vacancy in the position of constable allows the domineering Laclan Mackenzie to assume this title and bully the community into obeying his slightest whim. They all follow his orders like sheep, except for Roderick who, resentful and proud, stands up to him and eventually this leads to the murder of Laclan and his family. One example of his tyrannical cruelty has a scene where Roderick and his father spend all day dragging seaweed out of the sea to use as fertilizer on their now greatly diminished farm, only for MacKenzie, standing above them on the cliff, ordering them to take it back because they didn’t have permission. This is but one example of his determination to break Macrae and his stubborn father. MacKenzie casually rapes Macrae’s sister and doesn’t even bother to hide it from the family. This book very realistically allows the reader to imagine what it would take to induce a person to snap, for a not normally violent person to be driven to violent acts. Multi layered, deeply moving and clever.
MEMBER OF THE WEDDING by Carson MacCullers
Every girl should read Carson McCullers. Her writing has a longing and leaves an ache that never goes away, her books stay with you for life. The Member of the Wedding is arguably a slight book, but as delicate as a poem. Her acute, translucent writing shines a light on the human psyche like no other writer I know. A female Tennessee Williams but less dramatic. Member of the Wedding is set in the deep South and is ostensibly about the pangs of growing up but also about the confusion of sexuality and loneliness. The novel takes place over a few days in late August. The narrator is Frankie Addams who feels disconnected from the world, so the book feels strangely prescient, as that is what most teens complain of most now, due to social media.
Her mother dies in childbirth and her father is distant. Her only friend is Berenice Sadie who brings warmth and comfort and her six-year old cousin, John Henry West. She has no friends and looks at life through a veil. She dreams of running away with her brother and his bride. Her dreams are smashed and she is left behind. A poignant classic
THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin
Published in 1899 and seen as a forerunner of feminist literature, The Awakening has been compared to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Set in the deep South (again!), it tells the story of Edna Potellier a spoilt, rich housewife, who, bored and smothered by marriage to an older man, by her inability to connect to her children and by her desire to break free from conventional ties and rebel against the narrow role that society has ordained for her, is awoken one summer by her friendship with Robert Le Brun, who mixes freely with his Creole neighbours – which makes her staid husband distinctly uncomfortable but fascinates Edna and opens her eyes to other ways of living. Without even realizing what is happening to her, the process has begun which eventually leads to her freedom, but as an outcast in society.
FIND ME by Laura Van de Berg
Described as the best young writer in America, earning comparisons to Margaret Attwood, this novel is set in an imagined world. I am not a big fan of these kind of novels but Van de Berg’s writing is extremely powerful and cinematic. The narrator, who once worked a graveyard shift in a convenience store and has a strong addiction to cough syrup, was also abandoned by her mother at birth, hence the title ‘Find Me’. The majority of the book takes place in the Hospital, an enormous building with no access to the outer world. The world has been wiped out by a deadly plague and the inhabitants of the Hospital have been chosen either for their resistance to the disease, or their ability to tolerate it, or on account of their damaged natures being unable to form a cohesive revolt against their captors. Led by the weird Dr Beck, who is supposedly looking for a cure, the patients, clad in spacemen suits, eat microwaved food, have psychological daily tests, follow orders from an unknown voice and never doubt the authority at the Hospital. The protagonist slowly realises that the Hospital is not at all what it is set out to be. Chilling and I was unable to put it down.
PRISONERS OF GEOGRAPHY by Tim Marshall.
I never had a good geography teacher, I would doodle and dream throughout my classes at school, so utterly boring, pointless and irrelevant a subject Geography seemed. I didn’t care if rocks were formed by sedentary, lava or the third reason that I can’t remember and don’t need to know, I had no idea where Egypt was, I barely knew the continents, I was interested in Aborigines, American Indians, Eskimos and Maoris – but they didn’t get much of a look in. If only I had been given Prisoners of Geography I would have been a lot better informed (although this book isn’t really about Geography as such, but rather Geopolitics). Tim Marshall explains how geography defines how continents evolved, through their physical position in the world, whether landlocked or with access to the sea, how this has affected history and the formation of nations and empires.
This book should be compulsory for all schools, and I now understand world events much clearer. I was outraged to learn that the atlas that we were made to study year after year isn’t even accurate in its scale and dimension. Thank you Tim Marshall!