I have been reading so much lately – gulping books down on my Kindle, sometimes one or two a week. I read constantly during lockdown, and now continue to do so during this new period, no longer a burning inferno but a bleak plateau stretching on to a blurry trackless infinity (can you tell I’m feeling optimistic today).
At the start of the pandemic, when I was in a constant state of panic and stress, I could only cope with the most comfort-y of comfort reading, and I reread old favourites like My Friend Flicka and Westwood by Stella Gibbons (and honestly, also Anastasia’s Chosen Career). But in the summer, I wanted slightly more serious fare. More than anything, books have helped me learn and helped me escape. I don’t know what I would do without them.
Here are the best ten books I’ve read in this period – so far:
This was the last book I took out of the library before lockdown; I loved it so much that I’ve ordered my own copy. Ordinary People is about a couple living in south London and their rocky marriage after their second child is born, over the period of about a year. So far so ordinary, but she turns it into gold: marriage, friendship, children, soul music, ghosts, the history of Crystal Palace – you name it. There was also a scene set in a soft play centre that made me feel SEEN and almost made me nostalgic for those hellish places. She is a truly wonderful writer.
I was contemplating reading the Elena Ferrante novels but felt it might need a greater time/brain investment than I have at the moment – however this gave me the similar feeling I wanted, with a twisty female relationship and the history of a Tuscan family during fascism and the Second World War. Ownership is obviously a theme of Valerie Martin’s work as she won the Orange prize for Property. I loved this and will be reading more of her books. She is 72, which I have to confess surprised me and was also heartening.
‘You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.’ In this alternative history novel, Hillary meets Bill but doesn’t marry him, choosing instead to forge her own path. Her Rosebud is this thoughtless comment, above, from a friend’s father when she is about eight. I felt conflicted about reading this – it felt like a low blow to someone who, whatever your politics, has been through a lot. However, I loved it. I also heard a talk by Sittenfeld in which she explained why she couldn’t just change the name, as she did in American Wife. Having changed one variable, she couldn’t then change the name or she would be writing a pointless book about how Harriet met Bob at law school and didn’t marry him. Fair enough.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
I was sceptical about this having worked on celebrity autobiographies in the past, but this is great. I loved her reminder that life is becoming: we don’t reach a point at which we’re done, completed, and have every box ticked. Reassuring.
Intimations by Zadie Smith
I have always enjoyed Zadie Smith’s essays and especially this, written and published during the pandemic. I loved ‘Suffering Like Mel Gibson’ which made me feel better about having a terrible time while being safe at home, drawing as it does a distinction between privilege and suffering … ‘Suffering is not relative; it is absolute. Suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual – it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like ‘privilege’.’
I loved this novel about a young woman, Faith, and her efforts to navigate her path between her London life of flatshares and TV work, and the world of her Jamaican family. I knew Andrea Levy was a great writer, who of course won the Booker for Small Island, but I wasn’t expecting her writing to be so funny. Her descriptions of what it’s like to try and prise family history out of elderly relatives are so truthful, and hilarious too. I’m now looking forward to Small Island and all her other books. (Incidentally, what a dumb review on the Waterstones website – ‘it doesn’t hang together as well as it could’ as though it’s a wardrobe or a clothes horse).
I loved this. Life hasn’t always been gorgeous for JVN and this was very real and raw. I love Queer Eye and will also be reading Tan France’s book.
This is about a young Irish EFL teacher in Hong Kong who’s involved in a love triangle between an English guy called Julian, and Edith who is from Hong Kong (via Singapore). The writing style here is very similar to Sally Rooney’s, but I liked this even more because of the wider range of ideas, about homophobia, race and nationalism, as well as class and gender. I found the narrator’s version of Irish nationalism (or anti-Englishness) quite confronting, shall we say, but I think that was part of the intended effect. Lest that sound forbidding, it’s also very funny.
Also raw and honest. Michele Roberts is an acclaimed writer, but very few writers stay equally acclaimed all through their career. Here she writes of the year in which her Xth novel was rejected by her publisher, and in which she finds consolation in food, friendships and travel. This was a very reassuring book for a writer to read.
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
Vera Brittain was twenty-one when the First World War broke out. She lost her brother, her fiancé and her two close male friends, all killed in the fighting. She lived through two world wars and a pandemic, survived hellish conditions while working as a nurse on the Western Front, and later became a writer and campaigner for pacifism. This was an unbearably sad book to read, but supplied a certain sense of perspective which is much needed right now.
More book reviews as I have them and I’d love to hear any recommendations via the handy box below.