Dear Reader … a sampling of the books I read in 2014 …

Invitation to browse ...

Invitation to browse …

I recently read a short paragraph on a YouGov survey mentioned in the newspaper, which said of the 15,000 people questioned, 60% would have liked to make their living as a writer and the second most popular choice (53%) was being a librarian, followed by being an academic.  I wondered how the sample of people was chosen because although I’m probably of that ilk, I can’t quite imagine people queuing up at the local library for a ‘gold dust’ job.  I mean, you could be a model, a film star, a footballer, a racing driver, a pop singer instead.  What was the age range of this survey? For myself, I can’t imagine living in a world without books but I’m sure a lot of people can, especially now in the internet age. Maybe I am wrong – I hope so!

Since Christmas I’ve developed a habit of dropping into Waterstones (Piccadilly) and Hatchards.  The way the books are laid out now in Waterstones is thanks to the owner of the independent ‘Daunt’ bookshops, who was asked to come in and revolutionise the company.  Small tables are laid out with interesting groupings of books, which make it both easy to see what is available and often your eye alights on something you hadn’t known about but which looks fascinating.  There are vases of flowers throughout and groups of armchairs where you can sit and browse or even doze a little.

Authors are invited to come in the evening and talk about their recent publications and these sessions are often free or a token £5 with a welcome glass of wine. All the shop assistants seem to be well read themselves and full of knowledge and information, which they deliver with enthusiasm.  All this adds to the pleasure of book buying. To me, it’s like a second home. I don’t belong to a club in London but it would be great to have one here – but with better loos!

One of my favourite haunts is the basement café, which shares the downstairs floor with the travel section. It’s very book user friendly, with a browsing selection stacked in the middle of a long table –  especially for visitors.  A perfect place to rest your weary legs for half an hour and indulge in a buttered scone and a cup of tea.  I’m seduced and almost always buy a book or two before leaving. So many books  –   so little time …

I love seeing that lots of people are reading books on the tube – and Kindles – but books are still a popular choice. I try to see what everybody is reading and count how many books are being read throughout the carriage. My other pastime is to look at everyone’s shoes and decide which people I would like before I look at their faces.  The choice of shoes definitely defines a personality.  Of course, this is only my personal choice!

At the end of last year I made a list of the books I had read and added a small note about each one.  It was fascinating to look back at them all as we left 2014.  I couldn’t choose a favourite as the list is too eclectic and I tend to read according to my mood.   The notes were helpful  in reminding me how I had felt and reacted when reading the book.  It also made me aware of how people might see me as an individual if they saw what I had read over a year –  maybe in a different way from how I see myself!  I am a quick reader and it has always been one of my favourite things to do, even as a child.  Here is a sample of the 45 books I read.

The Storyteller

The Storyteller    

I started 2014 off with ‘WOLF HALL’ and ‘BRING UP THE BODIES’ by Hilary Mantel.  I had been slow to make the effort and it took me 200 pages to meet the challenge  – but I persevered and from then on I was ‘there’ and it just spooled out.  I’m glad to have read the books before watching the TV production  –  which I love. It’s a drama, not a totally historically correct account but much research was done by the author and it brings history to life for me in a way that a factual history book doesn’t.  And I think that knowing our history enables us to better define our future.  Not many of us know enough of our history though …  MPs should be given a relevant book list and then tested on what they have read. And what useful ideas they glean from it.

Next up is ‘THE NOSTALGIA FACTORY’ by Douwe Draaisma, translated by Liz Waters. The Dutch writer is a renowned memory specialist and this book is about the ageing mind.  It’s clearly written and uplifting for those of us in our sixties when a certain amount of ‘forgetfulness’ kicks in. There are unexpected pleasures in getting ‘old’ you might be pleased to know!  Recommended.

John was invited to go down the Amazon when in Colombia.  A friend said I should read ‘STATE OF WONDER’ by Ann Patchett.  I think she didn’t want me to go!  It’s a gripping tale from start to finish but don’t read it just before leaving to explore the Amazon!  Very enjoyable and very scary.

On to ‘FAST EXERCISE’ by Michael Mosley with Peta Bee. Michael Mosley is a doctor by training but also a great TV presenter on health matters.  He is a joy to listen to – full of curiosity and experiments with a big splash of common sense.  He catches your full attention – even swallowing a tapeworm egg to further his experiments for the good of all.  Both exercise and nutrition are covered in his programmes for general good health. He is a hero in the making and fun to be with.

A sample of book covers 1

A sample of book covers 1

‘QUIET’ by Susan Cain.  On the back cover of the book are these words. ‘For far too long, those who are naturally quiet, serious or sensitive have been overlooked.  The loudest have taken over – even if they have nothing to say’.  I can now safely say without feeling bad about it that I am an introvert.  I score 20 out of 20 in the small survey, bar one or two conditions.  I wouldn’t get into Harvard but I am quite happy about this.  A really thoughtful, rewarding book which greatly  bolstered my self esteem.

‘A FOREIGN COUNTRY’ by Charles Cumming.   An excellent thriller writer.  This book is gripping and unputdownable.  I think it’s the best of all his books to date.  Spy stories.

‘THE SPIES OF WARSAW’ and ‘MISSION TO PARIS’ by Alan Furst.   This is a very well know ‘spy’ writer of thrillers.  These two writers pace one another. I prefer Cumming on points and I think that’s because he’s good at knowing how women feel.  He gets inside their heads.  But the books by Furst are tightly constructed and hold together well.

An American friend of John’s sent me ‘LONESOME DOVE’ by Larry McMurtry. This has 858 pages and is quite a hike but also a great story of the American Wild West.  It’s something that would have been on my English and American comparative literature course at university – except it wasn’t yet written –  but I would say is a ‘classic’ already!

Another American novel.  ‘THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS’ by Tara Shea Nesbitt.  This is a curious and fascinating idea to write about the experiences of ‘the wives’, living in a compound on the site and knowing nothing of what their husbands are doing, except that it is “secret” ‘.  A good read.

A sample of book covers 3

A sample of book covers 2

‘FLASHBOYS – CRACKING THE MONEY CODE’ by Michael Lewis is about the ‘dark pools’ in the stock market where microseconds count.  It is an unknown world to me but it affects all of us.  Very scary – a peep into an underworld where the system is out of control  – or rather run by an all powerful, manipulative mafia.  It kept my attention even though I didn’t understand all of it. But I know we are on a knife edge.

Another frightening book – this one by David Quammen – ‘SPILLOVER’.  This is about pandemics and how diseases can spread from animals to humans.  It’s terrifying and yet fascinating.  We have to find out about these things before we are crushed by them in a tsunami type global wave. Not bedtime reading as is stuff of nightmares!

‘HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE’.  Alain de Botton is for me always a good, intuitive read.  I saw him once in the lounge at Heathrow.  He was looking very pale and tired so I didn’t speak to him.  Maybe I should have …

‘HENRI MATISSE – A Second Life’ by art critic and TV presenter Alastair Sooke.  This is a little gem of a book, brought out to coincide with the Matisse exhibition at the Tate in summer 2014.  It’s about the last ten years of the artist’s life, when he was ill and often confined to bed.  But in this state he did some of his best work and this tells the story of his ‘cut-outs’ phase, as well as being a general biography. It’s a rewarding read –  being informative as well as truly empathetic.  AS also presented an excellent TV programme which concentrated on the small chapel in St. Paul de Vence, whose coloured glass windows were made by Matisse. Do not miss them if you are down that way.

‘DREAMING IN CHINESE’ by Deborah Fallows is about how the writer and her family survived living in China.  She struggles to learn the language.  Here are some of the chapter headings. ‘Why the Chinese hear tones and we don’t’, ‘The grammar of romance’, ‘When rude is polite’, ‘The Essence of being Chinese’.  Read this book before you go to China.  It’s very insightful and also very amusing.  I would pack it in my bag to refer to at various junctures!

A sample of book covers 2

A sample of book covers 3

‘WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES’ by David Sedaris.  This is very witty, very vile and bonkers funny. Some might find it offensive.

‘THE HUMANS’ by Matt Haig.  This book is unputdownable.  I loved it so much I cried with joy.  Canongate (publishers) have once again come up with a completely one-off, out-of-the-box genius of a book.  I can’t compare it to anything else, except maybe ‘THE LIFE OF PI’ (Yann Martel), which I also loved and was astonished by how successfully it was filmed too (Director Ang Lee).  ‘THE HUMANS’ strikes at something deep in the heart of me because it appeals 100% to my sense of humour – but also the reason behind why humour is essential to life in general.

I’ve read all Paul Theroux’s travel books to date.  ‘THE LAST TRAIN TO ZONA VERDE’ is maybe his last ever, he says.  It is riveting like all the others – you feel you are there with him.  I think sometimes he would drive me ‘nuts’ but as he says, he prefers to travel alone.  In this last book he decides not to continue when at the point of real danger (in Angola).  The book is a rerun of the time he spent in Africa in his youth and follows the course he took then.  He’s one of the great travel writers and I agree with his decision here  –  why risk a good chance of death when at seventy- four you can go back home to Hawaii?!  I suggest you read all his travel books  –  I mentioned him before in the blog of our trip to Istanbul  – ‘Turkish Delights’.

‘WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL’? by Lorrie Moore.  This is a new and unknown writer to me.  I found her only because Waterstones had a display of new novels as you walked through into the main ground floor.  The title caught my eye.  It also had recommendations by Alison Lurie and Nick Hornby.  This is about two girls on the brink of adulthood living in a ‘hick’ town in the U.S.  The writer knows how each girl feels and it’s sensitively written and darkly amusing.  She catches and sustains the ‘noir’ with melancholy atmospheric description.

Following this read I went on to reread ‘DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON’ by George Orwell.  I hadn’t read this since university.  It’s so immediate with such powerful description – e.g.  the repulsive texture, odour and colour of flesh, fed only on stale bread and margarine.

I went to an exhibition at The National Gallery called ‘A CLOSER LOOK AT COLOUR’ and bought the book of the same name by David Bomford and Ashok Roy.  Both the exhibition and the book were illuminating. The book is also full of colour illustrations.  Rather than the significance of colour in a painting, this is about how different colours were made and how colours changed when put together or in different light.  It also shows how paints developed from e.g. grinding up lapis lazuli’  to artificial paints in tubes which were very stable and gave painters greater choice.  The Impressionists benefited greatly from this. I was and continue to be fascinated by this very informative exhibition and book. Light and colour open up our lives.  ‘What is the point of everything’? I sometimes ask myself.  Here is one of the answers.

I was motivated to read ‘TURNER’ by Peter Ackroyd.  This is a short but brilliantly vivid biography by a writer who has been awarded a CBE for his services to literature.  It is very readable.  I like Turner’s paintings more the older I get. This is also fun to read because it’s full of amusing anecdotes. And Turner was a purist for light and colour.

‘THE HOUSE IN PARIS’ by Elizabeth Bowen was written in 1935.  She excels at atmospheric description, whether of a person or a landscape.  ‘A tranquil woman – obtuse and sweet’, ‘the spongy smell of the tide’, ‘but fate is not an eagle – it creeps, like a rat …’ ‘the (handbag), with its sad grey lining, gave out a musky smell’.  ‘Aunt Violet came down to dinner wrapped up in old lace, with a submerged diamond brooch glittering through’.  This book evokes the misery of peoples’ lives as they try to capture love and happiness. Not to be read when gloomy!

‘UN CIRQUE PASSE’ by Patrick Modiano is the fourth book I have read of his in the original French.  In 2014 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.  All his books seem to consist of ‘searching’ for ‘missing’ individuals during and after World War 2.  He tells ‘untold’ stories about people who get lost in time and about fractured lives.  This is the story of a young boy and girl, their lives disrupted by war and the loss of family, drifting like flotsam in a dangerous world. Modiano is strong on atmosphere but there is also a story which is mysterious, obscure and full of menace;  beguiling to a person like me, who likes to find things out. A boy, a girl and her dog, murder, romance and the promise of a new life elsewhere.  I like this writer. Mesmerising – all four books.

I have also read a lot of ‘Maigret’ in French and he is one of my most loveable ‘book’ characters.  Simenon is a brilliant writer because he engages you as part of the mis-en-scène.  You enter into Maigret’s world  as soon as you open the book because Simenon excels at simple, clear description. Then added to this is the puzzle – which is for Maigret to solve the murder. Two books which I’ve read this year are ‘L’AMIE DE MME. MAIGRET’and ‘MAIGRET ET LE CLOCHARD’. For me, the books don’t seem formulaic like some detective stories. They are instead a world which I love to return to.

‘Il était huit heures vingt-cinq du matin et Maigret se levait de table tout en finissant sa dernière tasse de café. On n’était qu’en novembre et pourtant la lampe était allumée. A la fenêtre, Mme. Maigret s’efforçait de distinguer, à travers le brouillard, les passants qui, les mains dans les poches, le dos courbé, se hâtaient vers leur travail’.    So begins ‘MAIGRET SE TROMPE’.  And so I become Mme. Maigret!

'Maigret' and Modiano

‘Maigret’ and Modiano

‘DO NO HARM’ by Henry Marsh.  This is a brain surgeon’s brave attempt to tell what it’s like to operate on patients and how he honestly feels about it.  Full of heart warming successes and failures.  I would like somebody like him to be the surgeon if I had to have an operation.  This book has somewhat restored  my faith in the medical profession after John’s appalling treatment at Kingston hospital last June.  Not all medics are sloppy and inadequate.

Helen Macdonald won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction with ‘H IS FOR HAWK’. She took on training a goshawk to assuage the the death of her father.   It is very intense and stretches you out to emotional extremes.  And is very rewarding.

‘BIRD BRAIN’ by Guy Kennaway.  This book is at the other end of the scale to ‘H IS FOR HAWK’ and it made me laugh out loud.  It’s all about a man called ‘Banger’ Peyton-Crumbe who shoots pheasants and one day on a shoot unfortunately gets shot himself  –  and is reincarnated as a pheasant.  Wonderfully funny, eccentric and with a very English subversive sense of humour.  I loved every minute of it.

‘A HISTORY OF ENGLISH FOOD’ by another wonderfully eccentric and treasured author, Clarissa Dickson Wright, of ‘The Two Fat Ladies’ cookery programmes.  This book is a cornucopia of delights – well researched historical facts written by a ‘bon viveur’, a ‘foodie’ full of ‘joie de vivre’ and fascinating stories.  It’s so well researched and so much fun to read.   I read it twice over.   It’s autobiographical, witty – just fabulous.  She was a splendid person and had a rich and flamboyant life despite struggling with alcohol and in some ways deeply flawed.  I adore her and this book is a hugely satisfying read.

‘PACKING UP’ by Brigid Keenan.  An appropriate title to finish the year on.  Brigid Keenan is a journalist but also the wife of a diplomat and this is her story of the places she and her husband were posted to.  There is an earlier book also, which is just as enjoyable – ‘DIPLOMATIC BAGGAGE’.  This is a really  amusing read, telling it candidly ‘how it was’.  I feel akin to this writer in many ways.

It’s the end of the year and I’m also remembering which films stick out in my mind.  I loved ‘THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL’ so much I went twice – I saw and loved ‘BLUE JASMINE’ at the ‘Pagoda’ in Paris – and I much enjoyed the WOODY ALLEN documentary.  ‘GRAVITY’ was excellent – I was reluctant to go but John persuaded me and I’m glad he did.  ‘SKYFALL’ was a great James Bond – my favourite is ‘CASINO ROYALE’ but this came very close. ‘BEHIND THE CANDELABRA’ (the life of Liberace) was amazing in its portrayals and I kept having to play the songs afterwards (!), ‘ENOUGH SAID’ turned out to be James Gandolfini’s swan song – heartstoppingly generous and ‘FRANCES HA’ was a gentle, thoughtful production.

‘THE GREAT GATSBY’ was OTT. It reminded me of brightly coloured jars of confectionery in a child’s sweet shop. Gaia hit the nail on the head when she said ‘It was as if your teeth were rotting as you watched’! But good settings.  The one film I loathed from start to finish was ‘LE WEEKEND’. I found it offensive, miserably depressing and (hopefully) unbelievable.  Still, it’s good to have a bad egg to contrast with the good ones!

And so we travel on and into 2015.

Goodbye 2014

Goodbye 2014

Footnote: ‘The Storyteller’ painting –  by Caroline Elkington







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