OK, brace yourselves folks, we’re going on a three month roller-coaster of reading with some wham-bam-thank-you-mam write ups because I have been lax, negligent even, in my monthly bookish thoughts and it has become a thing bigger than myself, casting a shadow over my to do list, looming over me while I cower in shame.
I’ve been thinking about shame a lot recently, but more on that later. Today, we’re talking books and because there are quite a few to get through I’m going to make it snappy. Over the past three months I have been reading loads and often underlining things, folding down pages, scribbling my thoughts in a nearby notebook. But have I done anything with it? Have I feck. And the guilt and pressure of it has manifested into something of horror.
So I’m deflating the huge task at hand, while buzzing off post-run endorphins, with some fast, frantic writing within well defined perimeters.
February and March Reads in 150 words per book.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
One of those books that you just need to read. No matter how informed or woke you think you are, there’s always more room to absorb another person’s experience, to see the world from another point of view.
There’s a line from The Commitments (one of my favourite films) which goes something along the lines of “We’ll play soul music, because the Irish are the blacks of Europe and the Dubs are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin.” When I first read those words (paraphrased liberally here) in Roddy Doyle’s book, it opened my young eyes to the horrible truth of prejudice and the classification of human beings. Of course I was aware of the reality of racism, even in my very white, rural Irish surroundings, but literature has a way of making distant, theoretical things powerfully real.
When I read The Commitments as a teenager, I hadn’t experienced the prejudice which Eddo-Lodge had at the same age but as a child with a Dublin accent recently moved to Northern Ireland I had experienced a sharp-edged teasing that had made me feel different, that had distinguished me from my classmates. Roddy Doyle’s words made that feeling universal in a way that I wouldn’t recognise until I read To Kill a Mockingbird a few years later.
Eddo-Lodge’s words showed me the horrible truth about my own city, about my own privilege, about the justice system and feminism and popular culture. Racism and prejudice are embedded in every element of our society and if we’re too blind to see it, we’re not looking hard enough.
After raving about this book someone (I can’t quite recall who!) recommend I read Brit-ish, which I still intend to do, it is on my Oxfam browsing watchlist.
Night Waking by Sarah Moss
Her writing is just phenomenal in the most stripped-back, real-life, sneaks up and gets you by the throat brilliant way. I fell in love with the rugged, austere landscape of the Scottish island where we find ourselves as readers. I fell in love with Anna and her feckless, distracted husband and the two boys – troubled and tireless and taxing of even the strongest mother’s love – and that’s how brilliant Moss is – she creates these terrifyingly claustrophobic worlds in which you couldn’t bear to find yourself trapped and yet when you open one of her books you wade in and take a seat at the cluttered kitchen table, hungry for all the misery and magic that unfolds around it.
For those who read for escapism, Moss probably isn’t going to be your cup of tea, but I love the reality of life with all it’s aches and drudgery because it shines the most incredible spotlight on those little moments of beauty which pepper our struggles. Moss does that so well in all her books.
FYI, this book is the other sequel to the story which begins in Bodies of Light, following May’s narrative, though, confusingly, was written before it, though none of the three books feel like they’re part of a trilogy. As a writer I can only dream of a coming across a character or idea that opens up such a rich spider web of stories to be untangled across not just one, but three novels. Frankly I’m devastated that it’s over.
Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
I RAVED about this book when I was reading it. I know that Boyne is having a moment of being publicly shamed but I have to take a moment to just gush about him as a writer. His output has been staggering in recent years, so much so that I’m only half joking when I say I suspect he has a bit of the Maurice Swift about him himself.
In fact, I suspect it very much as the themes and character traits which he makes golden in this brilliant novel happen to have existed, in a much shabbier form, in a box that has sat by my bedside untouched for some years. I have been Maurice Swifted by Boyne. He has snatched the threads of a story from inside my head without us ever having met. And I’m both irked and ecstatic about the whole thing.
This book is brilliantly devised, jumping from one protagonist to the next, unfolding truths and fabrications in layers of fiction that make you suddenly very aware of your own place in the metaphysical. It also made me so conscious of how we tell our own stories – how we play both the hero in our own story and simultaneously a thousand supporting roles in everyone else’s. The story we tell about a moment in time can be staggeringly different from the story the person next to us might tell about that exact same moment. And we never know. We are all living our own fictions – a wonderfully terrifying thought!
This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
There is a good reason why this book has been in the bestsellers chart consistently for like a year. It’s devastatingly good.
I used to believe that everyone should serve their time working behind a bar or serving in restaurant as a form of civil service so they might learn to appreciate kindness, respect, responsible drinking, and the art of tipping. After reading this book I think we should do the same with the NHS.
Everyone should spend some time toiling for the wellbeing of others, witnessing the highest highs and lowest lows of human life while sleep-deprived, thirsty, hungry, needing to pee and unable to stop moving because someone is going to die. But I also fear that might break us as a society.
So perhaps we should all just read this book and allow Adam Kay to relive that experience for us. Everyone can learn from it. If this book doesn’t single-handedly restore the nation’s faith and commitment to the NHS and it’s staff, nothing else will.
Mr Salary by Sally Rooney
I’ve really enjoyed Rooney’s novels to date, high expectations for a third which will inevitably raise the bar even further, but I kind of didn’t see the point in this little story. It pulls on similar threads to her novels, I guess it demonstrates the way that writers create things, beginning small, building the layers of characters and narratives up into something bigger. Perhaps that is what these Faber Stories are trying to achieve.
It does capture Rooney’s magic though – an overwhelming atmosphere, not necessarily a pleasant one, which unarms the reader, drags us in. And this little snippet of a story can be washed down with a large cup of tea, so why the hell not I suppose.
Eating for England by Nigel Slater
Not to gush all over another author but regular readers will also be aware of my adoration for Nigel Slater. I read his Kitchen Diaries in the same way that one might pop the kettle on or have a soak in the bath (I do both those things far too regularly too), because they are pure, unadulterated comfort.
This book was not that. It was really interesting, for anyone even vaguely intrigued by cultural and historical attitudes to food and eating, this is essential reading but it wasn’t quite what I was after when I started out with it. It gave me something I didn’t expect – it reasserted my own sense of self as actively un-English, un-British.
By unpacking the eccentricities of the English, Slater exposed me to the vast otherness, the ocean’s breadth of difference which actually shifts among the waves of the Irish Sea. It was surprising to have these two distinctly different, yet often similar, often pigeonholed-together cultures – Irish and British – torn asunder not by history or politics but by reflections on our attitudes to eating and to food. Of course Slater doesn’t do this consciously – he does draw the comparisons and contrasts between English and European attitudes, often a reproach of the former, but for anyone who is otherly, for anyone who has grown up somewhere other than England, this book can be quite a surprising confirmation of that. Who’d have thought passages about biscuits and trifles could be so internationally important?
Also, a very important discovery that I made during the reading of this book – English puddings are, as an entity, fucking disgusting and I don’t believe I actually like any of them so while I might stay for the soups, the stews, the roast dinners, the fish and chips, the fried breakfasts and the biscuits, when it comes to dessert, I’m going to Europe.
Educated by Tara Westover
(You might have gathered so far that I’ve read some pretty incredible books over these two months of not-writing, and I don’t intend for that to become boring, but it’s been a really good couple of months for good reading.)
There is no way that you haven’t heard about this book – the memoir of a young woman who grew up as a survivalist Mormon in Idaho and broke free of the religious, familial, cultural cage she’d been born into in pursuit of an education. It has been everywhere, every talk show and podcast and magazine. Barack Obama called it ‘remarkable’ and he is ALWAYS right.
This book is staggering, moreso because you have to keep reminding yourself that these things really happened to Tara, the broken bones and brain washings and moments of humiliation. She lived this and it is such a testament to her strength and ambition that you are even holding the paperback in your hands. Learn from that.
I am trying to.
The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett
So I did the thing you shouldn’t do of watching the adaptation before I’d read the book because the film is never as good as the book, but I have to say, this may be the exception to the rule. The film captures this little novella perfectly for me. I couldn’t not see Maggie Smith or Alex Jennings in the lead roles, but that wasn’t distracting, and if anything, the film gave more flesh to the bones of Bennett’s background characters for me.
I love this story. I love that it’s true, that such a woman existed and endured. That a community, however flawed in it’s liberal intentions, embraced her, that someone like Bennett took her into his garden, if not his home, and eventually his heart. Of course he did. He would, wouldn’t he?
Again, as a writer, reading this book was fruitful, educational. Real diary entries, notes and ponderings from life which grew into something bigger, which became something more substantial, yet not epic, not a 400 page, academically heavyweight Booker Prize winning work of art, but still, something important, something human, something worth writing and worth reading. Snippets of everyday life – the mundane, the strife, the shit – which, strung together as part of a story, become something rather beautiful.
I love how real Bennett’s writing is (though I confess, this was my first foray into his world, definitely not my last), how confessional and laid bare it is, exposing not just the author but the whole world around him. It does not feel like fiction, it feels like a familiar voice over the radio, it feels like sitting opposite a friend in the warmth of their kitchen, listening to the latest ridiculous escapades of their neighbours. It’s domestic and homely and heartwarming. I adored it.
Phew. Well that wasn’t so bad afterall. And now it is done – a bloody huge tick on that ever-present to do list. And yes I know, I wrote a little more or a little less than the 150 words I signed myself up for but hey, you make the rules to break the rules, right?