Favourite books of 2019

I don’t know if it’s a case of getting older but I do sometimes re-read books I have loved. These include ‘The Greengage Summer’ by Rumer Godden, ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Ethel Lina White, ‘The Balkan Trilogy’ by Olivia Manning, ‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner, ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ by Clive James (after his recent death), ‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd, ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ by George and Weedon Grossmith, ‘The Young Visiters (sic)’ by Daisy Ashford, ‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig and ‘The Places Inbetween’ by Rory Stewart. I love Patrick Modiano’s books in french, often just re-reading a chapter because of the brooding atmosphere of impalpable menace he is so good at invoking. ‘Maigret’ by Simenon, in french, is also a great favourite This short list probably gives some inkling into my personality. A lot of these books have also been made into films.

The writer

I’m starting with Muriel Spark, who was brought up in Edinburgh and ended up in Italy. She was quite a tricky personality but Alan Taylor, who has written her biography after many meetings and interviews over some years, became a friend and there was obviously a ‘spark’ between them.The book’s title is ‘Appointment in Arezzo’, subtitled ‘A Friendship with Muriel Spark’. What a great name, even though it came from her husband, who was, apparently, not so great! William Boyd writes on the cover, ‘A beguiling, fascinating memoir’ and I couldn’t put it more succinctly myself. I felt I got to know her well and found the book enormously enjoyable.

I also read her book, ‘Territorial Rights’. Much of it is set in atmospheric Venice – with rocky romance, adulterous liaisons, a would-be art historian meddling with a capricious countess, blackmailers and spies against a backdrop of ‘respectable’ ladies who run the Pensione Sofia. An interesting footnote – when Robert and Anna are tracked down by a middle aged man in a business suit, purporting to be a ‘talent spotter’, he tells them they have ‘style’ and can ‘make the top’. As a result, they are sent to the Middle East to train in a terrorist camp! This book was written in 1979 …?

Two excellent reads

From there I came upon a great find in Waterstones. First published in the U.S. in 2017, ‘Sourdough’, by Robin Sloan, is set in San Francisco and features the Farmers’ Market on the sea front, where I remember sitting outside a great fish restaurant with a steam beer, feeling on top of the world. Sourdough bread is all the rage – now in the U.K. as well – and the author has soared on its wave of publicity. Lois Clary, a software engineer, is bequeathed a sourdough starter, which she, a novice in baking, must keep alive. Shades of ‘Burning Man’ eccentricity, a new life opens up for her in an unexpected way. The Financial Times calls it ‘An enjoyable slice of fiction, wonderfully written and absolutely brilliant’. It sparkles.

Always buy sourdough bread!

A non-fiction book from that part of the world – but based in Silicon Valley, is ‘Bad Blood’. John Carreyrou is an excellent investagative journalist who tracks down secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley start-up. A scientist becomes obsessed with a new idea and then hides the fact that the technology is flawed. Investors have put in millions of dollars. Carreyrou discovers a huge, corporate fraud. This is an example of the downside in taking risks with new technologies. It’s a fascinating read – quite shocking. It rather confirms my reluctant suspicions about certain people and projects in Silicon Valley. Hi-tech needs to be monitored and regulated. Difficult but necessary in a globalised world. No photo – the jacket is bright red but it’s disappeared … suspicious…

I’m interested in Japanese culture and found two books which really appealed to me. ‘Sweet Bean Paste’ by Durian Sukegawa and ‘Before the coffee gets cold’ by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. Both of these books explore the meaning of individual lives (‘no existence is devoid of meaning’), of the power of friendship, the importance of memories and how the celebration of good food and drink interweaves into our spiritual existence.

‘Sweet Bean Paste’ is a charming, sweet and tender book, using the deliciousness of the sweet bean pancakes to illustrate how unexpected friendships bring happiness to each person and harmony to the world around them, enhanced by the beauty of pink cherry blossom. And yet there will always be dark clouds, bad memories, bad times, challenges to overcome. ‘Poignant, poetic, sensual’ (Lausanne Cités) – ‘This mix of grief and solace, cherry blossoms and red beans is a recipe for happiness’ (Radio SRF 2 Kultur Kompakt). A book to be read when feeling overwhelmed with the modern world. It will ease your worries for a while and give you new insights into what life might mean to you. Much recommended.

Two charming reads take time to sit down, clear your mind and read them slowly …

I picked up ‘Before the coffee gets cold’ partly because I liked the cover. It’s very offbeat, set in an old fashioned café and quite mysterious. There are three stories – three different people who wish to find out what the future holds, following things that have happened in the past, which cannot be changed. A chair in the café offers you the possibility to travel back in time but not without risk. And you must return to the present before the coffee gets cold. Mesmerising and extremely thoughtful. It starts slowly but stick with it and you will be rewarded.

Delving back into the past in a different way is a book by Lara Maitlem about the treasures to be found in the mud of the Thames in London. It’s called ‘Mudlarking’ and a mudlark is defined as ‘A person who scavenges for usable debris in the mud of a river or harbour’. I see many ‘mudlarks’ plying their trade along the banks of the Thames and have often thought I would like to join in. The author has spent fifteen years discovering objects from the past that the river throws up on its banks – buckles, pins, pipes, pottery, bottles, coins, sometimes engraved with initials and love knots, examples of which are illustrated on the endpapers of the book. Lara has many stories to tell – a fascinating read.

Treasures of the Thames

I don’t usually read the books which win the Booker Prize but ‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner won it in 1984 and I have enjoyed many of her novels since – so much so that I read this one again recently. It was made into a film, starring Denholm Elliott and Anna Massey in 1986. The Times calls it ‘a smashing love story. It is very romantic. it is also humorous, witty, touching and formidably clever’. Hilary Mantel writes ‘Her technique as a novelist is so sure and so quietly commanding’.

Anita Brookner taught at The Courtauld Institute of Art and wrote twenty four novels. She died in 2016.

One of those books that merits a re-read

Talking of the merits of re-reading, ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Ethel Lina White (1876 – 1944) also qualifies but in this case I saw the film on television and then decided to read the reprinting of this book. It was first published in 1936 under the title ‘The Wheel Spins’ and made into a film, entitled ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Alfred Hitchcock in 1938. It starred Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave and Dame May Whitty. Two further remakes were made.

Ethel Lina White wrote over fifteen mysteries and thrillers, several of which were made into films. She was enormously successful in her day and as well known as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers but she fell into obscurity following her sudden death in 1944. The story is about a woman who goes missing on a train travelling through Europe and the tension is kept up until the very last page. The characters are well drawn and I can see why Hitchcock decided to make a film of it – which, in itself, was a great success.

Two very enjoyable reads …

Surprisingly, here is the detective novelist, Agatha Christie writing a very personal diary of the trips with her husband, Max Mallowan, to archaeological sites in Syria, Iraq and Mesopotamia. Fascinating photographs are interwoven throughout the text . I’m really impressed by how she copes with the primitive conditions in the desert. How would I compare if I was woken in the night by mice running over my face, only to struggle to light a lantern which then illuminates hundreds of cockroaches on the walls of what can hardly be called a bedroom. She describes everything with a wonderfully dry wit, and is very ‘beady’ about the local sheiks and their behaviour.

P.D. James writes ‘Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense, and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life both in peace and war for millions throughout the world’. She continues to do so today. Félicitations, Agatha. Very good to read something about your own life!

I’m now turning to contemporary writers. I have always loved Sebastian Faulks’ writing – ‘Birdsong’, ‘Green Dolphin Street’, ‘Charlotte Gray’ – and ‘Paris Echo’ (2018) doesn’t disappoint. If you love Paris, it’s an especially good read. I love the detailed descriptions, for example, of the markets in Paris and in Tangier. Sebastian Faulks is so thoughtful that I feel he must know some of these individuals personally … maybe not. But he pulls out all the stops to deliver a first rate story, balancing his characters between Paris and Morocco – delving both into the past, their daily life in the present and the hopes of Hannah and Tariq for their different futures. Again, a relationship which happens through a chance meeting which in the end fulfils both of them.

‘Trinity'(2018), by Louisa Hall, is extraordinary and mesmerising. It is based on the complex character of J. Robert Oppenheimer – the father of the atomic bomb. The title, ‘Trinity’, is used because ‘Trinity’ was the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear device on 16 July, 1945. It was named by Oppenheimer, who said he was inspired by the poetry of John Donne, (1572 – 1631). Maybe ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ …

The author takes seven fictional, separate individuals who fall into Oppenheimer’s orbit at different times of his life in order to unfold the scientist’s very complicated personality. It’s an absolutely riveting read. The ‘New York Times’ pronounced it ‘brilliant’.

Two contemporary favourites …

Two other contemporary novels, which I didn’t get on with quite so well. However, it’s good to see what other people like. John suggested ‘Liberation Square’ by Gareth Rubin. John likes ‘what if ‘ books. The Germans have won the war and London is now like Berlin, with a wall down the middle. Everything operates in an atmosphere of fear. I found it a bit muddled but on the whole, a good thriller. It didn’t do much for me though. Just added to the gloom of the present uncertainty in our general lives …

Elizabeth Strout is an acclaimed writer, obviously beloved by many. So I bought ‘Olive Kitteridge’. Somehow, I was reluctant to get into it but then began to really enjoy it, so it clattered along. Over half way, I began to find it so parochial and suffocating, I started to wonder why these people managed to go on living such tedious lives. Poor Olive is tied to a life of negativity because of her personality. I do see myself in a very small part of her (which I must keep extinguishing) – really so glad I wasn’t born Olive. She’s bitter, she’s irritating, she’s tetchy, she’s funny, her character assassinations are brilliant, she relies too much on common sense and can’t help breaking out in kindness and self pity from time to time but she’s also lonely and sad and won’t admit to it. She’s not someone I would like to see often. Too wet blanket, too needy, just tiresome. But still, I sympathise with her lot in life. Will I buy the new book, ‘Olive Again’? I’m curious but life is short, so I’m not sure. Elizabeth Strout does hit the nail on the head though. Ouch!

Horses for courses …

What I needed now was some tales of derring-do. An old fashioned phrase, stirring up memories of Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean. Vintage have re-issued some of Hammond Innes’s thrillers – and I landed up with ‘The Lonely Skier'(1948). He dedicates the book to a friend, Peter Wilson, saying he hopes it will recall pleasant memories of places visited together. The setting is the Dolomites. This is a thriller at the top of its game – a great book to read either while travelling or tucked up in bed. Satisfaction guaranteed!

In 1975, Frederick Forsyth wrote a novella, Called ‘The Shepherd’. He’s not a writer I know well, although a film (1973) was made of his book, ‘The Day of the Jackal'(1971), starring Edward Fox, which was a massive success. The film was absolutely riveting but I don’t believe I ever read the book. I should. My father-in-law, who was in the RAF, died last year, aged 98. ‘The Shepherd’ has a picture of an RAF brooch on the front cover, which men gave to their sweethearts as they left for war. I had bought two of those for my daughters as mementoes of their grandfather. So I picked up ‘The Shepherd’ out of curiosity. It’s Christmas Eve 1957 and a pilot is flying home solo, on leave from Germany – a simple sixty six minutes of flying time. Things go wrong. It’s a miniature masterpiece. Tense, spooky, stirring and beautiful. I loved it.

High quality thrillers

I’ve just found a book which incorporates both travel and history in Europe. It’s called ‘Lotharingia’, by Simon Winder. Judith Flanders says ‘He has created a genre all of his own, the history-travelogue memoir’. It sounds just up my street!

A treat in store …

Art books by Taschen are fantastic and always a great gift to receive. I’ve been dipping into ‘What Great Paintings Say – 100 Masterpieces in Detail’. Alongside it, I’ve been reading ‘The Art of Rivalry’ by Sebastian Smee. He takes Manet vs Degas, Picasso vs Matisse and De Kooning vs. Pollock. This writer really knows his stuff and uncovers so much personal detail of each artist. This is rivalry that stems from admiration and friendship. It’s an illuminating and rewarding book.

‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ by Kassia St Clair is beautifully presented. It’s also packed full of information with fascinating stories about each colour. I’m besotted by colour and this is such a treasure trove. ‘A vivid, whirlwind tour through the rainbow’ says The Wall Street Journal. These are all books which reside by my bedside. Dippers!

Treasure troves – the buzz of learning more about what you love …

I love Alexander McCall Smith. I bought his new book of short stories, ‘Pianos and Flowers’, inspired by old photos which he has come upon randomly – he doesn’t know the people in them but has created stories around the images. There are fourteen stories from all over the world concerning love, friendship, happiness and how chance and serendipity play a part in changing lives. ‘McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers’ – (New York Times) . He’s a lovely man in real life too!

Brief Encounters

And now a cracker of a book, bought by John and definitely in my top three reads of the year. It is a non-fiction, historical account of The British Plot to Bring America into the Second World War and stars two unlikely heroes, Bill Stephenson and Bill Donovan. It really is a sensational piece of writing, entitled ‘Our Man in New York’ by Henry Hemming. There is praise from Ben MacIntyre, William Boyd, Max Hastings, ‘The Guardian’ and many other newspapers and journals. I couldn’t put it down. Those two men did so much for us all.

A revelatory and wholly fascinating work of history ‘ – William Boyd

I finished up with a book advertised enormously in advance and very well worth the wait for! This is one of my favourite writers. ‘The Body – A Guide for Occupants’, by the illimitable Bill Bryson. Besides his brilliantly entertaining travelogues, he is also a mine of information about life in general. If you enjoyed ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, you should read ‘The Body’ too. His erudition is lightly worn and he has the enviable gift for explaining the most difficult subjects in the clearest possible way, spicing his writing with a dry sense of humour, often against himself. This is a book to return to. Like a knowledgable and engaging friend, you will always find something new and inspiring to discuss. I am always curious to learn, so this book is perfect company.

A final flourish …

This has been a great year for books. I am happy, as I love reading, love bookshops and long may they continue to give us such pleasure. As you may have guessed, I am not an Amazon fan. Waterstones and Hatchards in Piccadilly are my stamping grounds – good cafés within at Waterstones, meaning I can always stay that little bit longer …

2020 awaits …
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