My books of 2015

Posted on Sunday 13th December, 2015

For me this year Muriel Spark has been a delight. Towards the end of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie there is a discussion on the sea front between Miss Brodie and the girls in her class about Teddy Lloyd and his paintings. Miss Brodie stops to consider the sky ‘streaked with blood and puffed with avenging purple and gold as if the end of the world had come without intruding on every-day life.’ It’s a passage so neat and light, and so deeply reflective of her valiant, hidden schoolmistress, it’s as if Spark flicked her, with casual wrist, on to the canvas of the novel and rearranged the whole around it, not quite ever, to settle. We know by now how things will end for Brodie, and so this fleeting reflection is more moving, even as, one of the girls points out, ‘we are meant to be amused’.  This is one of those moments in literature that opens something in me,  wakes me up, creates a quickening of thought and feeling, and for which I would read a hundred novels in one sitting if there wasn’t so much to do!

Spark’s first novel The Comforters was a comfort to me.  It’s a funny, clever story about a woman who begins to think she is a character in a novel and then wonders if her author is dangerous or benign. As a writer, and as a person, i have often felt that i am living in someone else’s book and can’t find the way out and into mine. It’s a grim state, has doubt and worry and/or a deadish feeling in it, but transition into the truer life can be made and on the way there one finds new meaning in books like these.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye i loved and not just because it opens in a pub I can see from the windows in my flat.

Then Winesberg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, for that truth within a truth within a truth at the start; The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares for a neat little parody of our many pretensions; The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller for the poetry and rhythm and a sense of what living in a dictatorship does to the brain – see this interview in the Paris Review. 

And The Tin Drum by Günter Grass for the joy and wit and aliveness in his sentences. I loved the quiet, gentle Out Stealing Horses, about and a boy and his father, by the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson. It taught me much about how we stifle and repress.

There is brilliant conceit in There But For The by Ali Smith; and Nights at The Circus by Angela Carter – that ‘cortege followed by droves of grieving whores’ and Lizzie’s fierce cackle on the bombe surprise – kept me smiling in a heatwave.

I discovered the poetry of Jack Gilbert and Wisława Szymborska. I kept reading Mary Oliver and Michael Longley. And John Burnside. And the Bloodaxe poetry anthologies.  BEING ALIVE  is the sequel to STAYING ALIVE ed. by Neil Astley and is full of love, wisdom, humour, bite and depth.

Marina Tsvetaeva’s Art In the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry. For those with the courage and the wit.

For the grotesque as a literary term with emphasis on the body in hybridity, otherness and consumption, from Shakespeare’s Richard III and Caliban to Patrick McGrath by way of Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and the work of Francis Bacon, Grotesque: The New Critical Idiom. edited by Justin D Edwards and Rune Graulund, is a good introduction.

The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk is a stirring, difficult and important work. As are books by the Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller, notably The Drama of The Gifted Child.

For more on the false self and learning to face the truth of your own life, see Winnicott’s The Child, the Family, and the Outside World and the Adam Phillips book: On Winnicott. 

From there to James Wood whose new book of essays The Nearest Thing to Life is thoughtful, reflective and resonant. How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields has a great cover and much to ponder inside. For thinking about why i struggle with novels: Lennard J Davis, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction. 

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick; 

Annie Dilliard’s The Writing Life and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones keep me at it when i wonder why. And i enjoyed the Dani Shapiro book Still Writing. Dani’s book led me to Donald Hall’s account, The Best Day the Worst Day, of his twenty-three year marriage to the poet Jane Kenyon, her battles with depression, their lives together as poets, their farmhouse in New England, the garden she tended, and her death of leukaemia in 1995. 

Recently i watched the Margarethe von Trotta film about Hannah Arendt and her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial. It prompted me to order Arendt’s The Life of the Mind. This has just arrived in the post and sits on the bedside table with Henry Miller on Writing; the Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce, a book my son wanted for Christmas but couldn’t wait for; William Carlos Williams’s Selected Poems, and Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson. At the bottom of the pile is a much-loved and very beautiful edition of The Letters of John Keats given to me by the owner of a second-hand bookshop i worked in (smoked in and read in) during my time as an undergraduate in Bristol in the mid 90’s. 

Kafka still usually cheers me up and I won’t go far without Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke and A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.