January Reads

It has been quite a fruitful month for reading – apparently holidays and being ‘funemployed’ are the answer to the staggeringly impressive reading paces I’ve admired on Bookstagram.

It’s been rather a balanced month in terms of fiction and non-fiction too. Three of each. A good habit to stick to this year I think. And here’s something I haven’t been able to say in a while – I would wholeheartedly recommend each and evey one of them. So if you’re looking for some 2019 reading inspiration, here’s what I’ve got to offer…

Normal People by Sally Rooney

When I eventually got around to picking up Sally Rooney’s much-raved-about debut Conversations with Friends last year, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hype was entirely justified. So when I discovered her Booker Prize-winning Normal People under the tree on Christma Day I couldn’t wait to tuck in.

My god, it’s good. I fell in love with both Marianne and Connell. The goldfish bowl rural community they grow up in felt so familiar. And spookier still, while I read about the couple’s ambitions to get schols, my little sister was at home studying for them herself. Rooney has a way of drawing you into her world and the claustrophobia of its smallness, the whispers beyond the page that seem to haunt Connell, the weight of insecurities that drag Marianne down into moments so full of danger you forget to breathe.

More than anything, the beautiful relationship the pair have, the strength they find in each other, it’s the romance this cold, digital world needs. As readers, we sit just beyond it all, thoroughly invested, as if eavesdropping from the next table. We see the nano-reactions, hear the inner narrative they can’t bring themselves to say out loud, we feel the ebb and flow of distance between them with each chapter.

Rooney can dangle us from any novel with our own heartstrings and my God can she make the people of Ireland take one good look at themselves in her nicely polished looking glass. The disgusting disparity of wealth, the crimes of the banking crisis still unpunished, the abhorrent intellectual snobbery that still lurks in institutions such as Trinity College – nothing escapes Rooney’s gaze. But she can hide it from us – folding it within human stories, peppering it lightly in a young man’s shame or lack thereof.

There are reasons Rooney is being touted as one of the greatest writers of our time at the tender age of 27. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

“It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”

Sally Rooney, Normal People

The Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

My reading of the Harry Potter series has been slow progress. I read The Philosopher’s Stone in school and didn’t enjoy it – it felt too childish. I finally got around to reading the second book a couple of years ago and although I’d seen enough of the film adaptation to know the plotline, I found it an enjoyable enough read, enough so that I thought about continuing the series.

By that point, I’d also reread much of the first book with a group of children at a library in the Wirral. That experience, reading the books with children, had opened a new dimension to the books. They all knew the stories and were so passionate about the characters – any book that can inspire children that much is worth a read.

So, pondering some easy Christmas reading, I picked up the third in the series with everyone’s “It’s the best one!” assurances ringing in my ears. And I finally got it. Azkaban did feel decidedly more grown-up than it’s predecessors, there was a welcome darkness, a few new characters with jagged edges. Again, I was familiar enough with the films to know what was coming next but it didn’t take anything away from the tension.

I’m actually really looking forward to reading The Goblet of Fire, I’ll be picking it up from my little sister’s shelf when I’m home later this month.

You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no … anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever … lost.

JK rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The Confectioner’s Daughter by Lou Drofenik

I’d been on the lookout for a Maltese novel since my first visit in 2015. After consulting a bookseller in Valletta during our New Year’s trip he recommended this one and it was a welcome easy read which I consumed almost in its entirety on the flight home. Is it going to win a Booker or Costa Prize? No. But will it open your eyes to the history and culture of the little Mediterranean rock where it’s set? Very much so.

The importance of family, the dust, the wonder and danger of small communities, the often heavy presence of the Catholic Church, the national sweet tooth – all of this comes out in Drofenik’s wash of early 20th century Malta. Later, the war, hints of the corruption which has wheedled into a society which, so poor for so long, was beginning to see the payouts of hard work. And like, my own national story, emigration – the promise of a better life elsewhere in New York or Australia.

The story follows the female line of a family plagued by misfortune and bad luck. The matriarch, Guditta, steps up from the shadows of grief and shame, to build a thriving business, with the help and support of family friends – the acts of kindness in this book were perhaps the most familiar visions of Malta – and founds a legacy which follows her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter through the century’s winding potholes and pitfalls. The overwhelming sense that I was left with having finished this book in bed on my first night back in Liverpool, was the strength of women to endure, to adapt and survive and care for each other – true of women universally throughout history, but wonderful to read about it in a new context, from a different national history.

“When will men in power stop making war on each other? Will there ever be a time when women will not be expected to give birth to so many children? Perhaps one day some will come and say “You don’t have to increase and multiply, you can have the number of children that you want, that you are able to feed, to clothe, to house, to educate.” But when would that time be? When would women get their freedom?”

Lou Drofenik, The Confectioner’s Daughter

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

Found alongside sequel More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, in Oxfam on Bold Street on my first New Year visit to browse their bookshelves and my goodness did I come home with a haul and all for a tenner.

Arriving home I put the kettle on, made a sandwich and sat down with Jen Campbell’s collection of hilariously weird quotes from customers, consuming it in one sitting. And Lord did I chuckle.

Customer: Do you stock Nigella Lawson under ‘Sex’ or ‘Cookery’?

Bookseller: It’s a tough call isn’t it?”

Jen Campbell, Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

If like me, you adore Jane Austen, have a curious interest in social history and a soft spot for Historian Lucy Worsley’s warm and human style, you will love this book. I dog-eared so many pages, underlined so many points of interest, my brain is bubbling over with so much Austen and Georgian magnificence.

Reading about the family relationships and homes which punctuate Austen’s transient life has inspired a renewed ambition to reread all her novels as soon as humanly possible. Worsley points the reader to so many previously unremarkable lines or character traits in Austen’s novels which are brimming with personal or political context. Austen is sometimes criticised (often by male critics) for not including more on the historical and political issues prominent in her time, as if she had a stage to write about it at the time, as if such writings by a woman had a hope of being published at the time, as if she were writing for posterity and their pleasure alone. (A furious full stop that, by the way).

The truth is that whoever’s pleasure Austen wrote for, whether it was her own or her family’s, she published for money and it was no easy venture. Fortune and the lack thereof plagued her life, particularly after her father’s death when the desperation of her situation reached a new low, the reality of which we’re familiar with in Pride and Prejudice. Worsley leads us through the perilous financial insecurity, the treacherous journey to publications and the reputational risk which Austen faced to bring her words to print, a story which could itself have formed the narrative of one of her novels, although ironically, a woman’s pursuit of a writing career wouldn’t have found favour with the publishers of the time.

On the subject which did sell novels, the pursuit of a husband, Worsley also reveals the romances of Austen’s life, the flirtations and prospective husbands, but ultimately played second fiddle to the most important relationship in her life – that with her sister Cassandra. The world unpicked in their letters reveals the tenderness and humour that passed between them, pillars of strength for one another throughout a life of hardships. Austen’s novels are a brilliant portrait of a Georgian woman’s life, but not quite hers. Her own life was darker, tougher, and worthy of her readers’ respect. In a world where a young woman might have expected to move from her father’s house to her husband’s and not particularly far after that, Austen’s life on the move is both unique and sadly typical of women of her undesirable fate. She was caught between classes and therefore destined to roam the households of friends, family and holiday guesthouses until she found herself under what pitiful roofs she and her makeshift family of women could afford.

If you indulge in only one author’s biography this year, make it this one. You won’t regret it.

“Young people reading Jane Austen for the first time think that the stories are about love and romance and finding a partner. But a happy home is equally as much what all of her heroines don’t have, and yet desire. All of Jane’s leading ladies are displaced from either their physical homes, or from their family. Jane shows, subtly but devastatingly, how hard it is to find a true home, a place of safety in which one can be understood and loved. She is uniquely sensitive to a particular home’s happiness – or unhappiness.”

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

A Christmas gift from me to DH, I’d had thoughts about eventually picking it up myself at some point. Because that’s why you buy books for loved ones at Christmas, right? I am always encouraging DH to read with birthday and Christmas gifts of books I’ve either read and loved or hope to read.

As it happened it was DH who encouraged me to read Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet when I found myself in a bit of a stressful funk. He’d finished it a few weeks before and as I followed in his wake, I began to see the origins of the little lifestyle changes he’d begin making – using his phone less, reading more (Four books this month! I have literally never been prouder of anything), deleting apps. Notes on a Nervous Planet had worked for him and he had passed it on to me, in a reversal of the pattern formed by Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive.

But I’m sorry to say that on this occasion, it didn’t do it for me. It’s a great book, brilliantly succinct about the society we live in, hugely helpful for those overwhelmed by the stresses of this modern world, but it wasn’t quite what I needed to unravel my own personal knot of worries.

I am constantly plugged in, even more so to news and current affairs than my own personal networks. I studied journalism as Twitter was peaking, I joined the Labour Party in the wake of Ed Milliband’s General Election, I campaigned for Remain. While Brexit and the decomposition of the Labour Party have left me rather disillusioned of late, Twitter is pretty much where I lived for a few years and I still spend much of my day dipping in and out. But I’ve always been quite good at switching off from it because I’ve always been a reader. Haig is right – books are the solution to the world’s digital overload. It brings us back to ourselves and to humanity.

And Haig has a wealth of anecdotes and factoids from history to inform and amaze. His style, as always, is wonderful and the bitesize chapters built for the modern deterioration of our attention spans are genius. It’s actually inspired me to write, to toy around with lists and isolated bubbles of thought, detached from a wider narrative or stream of discussion. It’s liberating. In that sense, Haig was the spoonful of medicine I needed. The content of the book didn’t cure what ailed me, but the way it was delivered, the way it was written, has inspired me to pick up a pen and work through it myself. Notes From a Nervous Planet did not dig me out of a hole, but it did give me the shovel to help myself and that is rather admirable in itself.

“All a writer can do is provide a match, and hopefully a dry one. The reader has to strike the flame into being.” 

Matt Haig, Notes from a Nervous Planet

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