My Books of the Year

or in the words of Steven Patrick Morrisey, “There’s more to life than books you know. But not much more, not much more.”

It’s great being retired or semi-retired as an English teacher. There’s so much more time to read books. Here’s just a few I got through in 2019.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

What a treat this book proved at the end of a challenging year. An affectionate homage to the golden age of American superhero comics from the thirties onward, this book tells the story of two Jewish creative entrepreneurs, who take New York by storm, making and losing a fortune on the way. Sammy Clay is troubled by his closet homosexuality, while Joe Kavalier, his cousin,  a recent emigre from Nazi- occupied Czechoslovakia, is tormented by the failure of his plans to engineer a similar, life-saving escape for this younger brother Tommy. This is an emotional, engaging and exciting read. Beautiful.

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls

When Nicholls gets it right, he really gets it right. His style, so lucid, so transparent, so non-tricksy, effortlessly carries the reader through the book as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. You almost don’t notice you’re reading, the book just happens in front of you. In that sense, it was like drinking a long cold glass of water when you’re thirsty on a hot summer’s day. A lovely, affecting story of a boy’s first serious  seventeen year old love, one long hot summer while taking part in an outdoor production of “Romeo and Juliet”

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I read this not having read “The Handmaid’s Tale” (I know, shocking), but having watched and enjoyed the TV adaptation. Or at least enjoyed the first series. So when it suddenly appeared on the New Books shelf of my local library, it seemed like providence was forcing my hand. And I’m very glad it did because it was a fabulous book. It seemed to be part of what is a very modern phenomenon, a creative interaction between film, television and literature. (See also Game of Thrones) The book expects familiarity with the TV version and builds on that. The result was a satisfying conclusion to the dilemmas posed by the Dystopian world created by the original book and sustained by the subsequent television series. A worthy Booker winner.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Another gift in a Booker promotion by my library. I was seduced by the pristine crisp pages of a new, untouched hardback, with its perfect polythene wrapper glistening under the strip lighting. When I had seen the book listed, I was at first rather cynical about it. I must confess I hadn’t read any Rushdie since Midnight’s Children, and I thought that this must be the Old Guard, stale and irrelevant, pulling a few strings to steal a few more moments in the Literary spotlight. This was compounded by reading an article somewhere that suggested something similar on the back of his ex-agent being involved with the short-listing. Or something like that. And then I read it. What a treat! Very funny, full of allusions to contemporary culture, bonkers story -within- a -story structure. One review I read suggested that Rushdie was just showing off with his verbal pyrotechnics used for no greater purpose, but that is a jaded and cynical view, I think. Genuinely enjoyable.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe

Seven eighths of this book is glorious, a frustrated Remainer’s tonic. It uses the much-loved character of Benjamin Trotter and friends, who first appeared in The Rotters Club back in 2001 (was it really 18 years ago?), to explore what Brexit meant to fifty- something vaguely liberal lefty middle class handwringers. Some hilarious set piece scenes and some skilful skewering of the political classes and the rise of unquestioned racism in our society, make the book both entertaining and analytical. Coe’s prose style, similar to David Nicholls in many ways, never intrudes on the unfolding of the story. My only caveat was the ending which I found unconvincing. Nonetheless, I can’t wait for Trotter’s next outing, hopefully to expose the dog’s breakfast Johnson will inevitably make of Brexit and to be part of the come-uppance such a calculated programme of lies deserves.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

This is a glorious imagining of the relationship between Bram Stoker, he of Dracula fame, Henry Irving, and Ellen Terry at the end of the nineteenth century /beginning of the twentieth. Irving, the celebrity actor producer of the late Victorian stage takes Stoker and his wife under his wing and relocates him from Dublin to London where Irving has become the Actor/Manager of The Lyceum. An intense set of relationships is explored, enmeshed in delightful period detail, with appearances by Oscar Wilde and Jack the Ripper in the suitably foggy streets of London. “Star of the Sea” by O’Connor is one of my all-time favourite books and this is a worthy return to that kind of form

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain.

What a great writer Tremain is. This was another chance selection on a routine trip to the library, but what a find it proved to be. This was first published in 1992 and is astonishingly ahead of its time. It was reissued in 2017 to exploit the recent interest in transgender issues and it’s a book that must be read. It is, in part, the first person narrative of a girl who feels she has always actually been a boy. It starts in the fifties in rural Suffolk and relates her struggle to make the transition in a much less sympathetic time. Beautiful and affecting. Read it.

More to come next week, Christmas excesses permitting……

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