2020 Reading Round-Up

I read thirty books this last year. You’d think, given lockdown and whatnot, that I’d have managed to read more than before, but I’m probably not alone in experiencing a continued dearth of leisure time. I suspect the hours previously spent commuting got absorbed by actually working more hours while at home, plus just, you know, trying to make life go on through the upheaval. Here are my very top ten out of a lot of good, transporting reads.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

In this partly historical, partly speculative story about pursuing freedom, Mr. Whitehead laid nearly all the eras of American racist atrocities out concurrently. It’s a rough look in the mirror but essential. He also tried to illuminate the inner life of a person born and raised in enslavement, and how it might limit one’s focus. I found the protagonist Cora compelling for her determination and understandable cynicism, and it was deeply irritating to see some Goodreads reviews complaining that she wasn’t sunny enough.

“A small freedom was the worst punishment of all, presenting the bounty of true freedom in painful relief.”

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

A fun and thrilling novel about exploring natural history in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and women’s roles in such discoveries. Set in an old mansion by often violent seas, it turns into a murder mystery with small-town treachery, solved by a really clever 14-year-old girl protagonist. This was my Christmas holiday feast following my own fossil-digging expedition the week before.

“It must be very relaxing being Mr. Jacklers, deaf to the crunch of other people’s feelings beneath his well-intentioned boots.”

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

I happened to be reading this one during World Book Day, which also happens to be St. David’s Day. Nothing like warm Welsh cakes and a great book!

I read the whole Neapolitan series at the start of this year, starting while we were actually in Sorrento, about an hour’s train ride south of Naples. They’re all intriguing, with intimate portrayals yet surprising turns. Elena’s educational journey, though, and the defiance of Lila’s first marriage including the perspective of her confused and brutal husband, made this possibly my favourite in the series.

“She deserved Nino, in other words, because she thought that to have him meant to try to have him, not to hope that he would want her.”

Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis

An award-winning, self-published novel about families coping with the aftermath of a disaster and the inquiry into its causes. Jane Davis created such beautifully nuanced characters in this, it’s hard to believe it was fiction, and I loved the added angle of using art to cope with grief. She also showed impeccable timing in revealing the different pieces and perspectives of the original event. You can read more about the writer’s process and her other (also acclaimed) work in this interview with author Sarah Tinsley.

“‘Artists have to make choices. We can make a small noise about a lot of things or a lot of noise about one thing.’”

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Another superbly crafted book with an enormous cast. It delved into so many different lives, spanning race and sexuality, making each person believable and sympathetic. I loved the ending, when every character was quite perfectly brought together. For me, the narrative style of line-by line rather than in standard paragraph form really worked, as if reading thought fragments, pulse by pulse. I found myself conducting my own observations in the same rhythm for a couple of weeks, it was so transfixing.

“the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some more noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
really”

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

I hadn’t read any Anne Tyler yet, and I loved this first taste, the idea of the Homesick Restaurant, where diverse chefs cook a favourite home meal different each night, plus of course the distinct characterisations of the whole family in the story. It reminds me of John Irving’s work, which I usually love—but a little more concise and sort of snarky, too. I mean, check out this sample which says so much about the family:

“His mother told Jenny not to slouch, told Cody not to swear, asked Ezra why he wouldn’t stand up to the neighbourhood bully. ‘I’m trying to get through life as a liquid,’ Ezra had said, and Cody (trying to get through life as a rock) had laughed.”

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A family story and a plague story, this was stunningly immersive. It spins the normal, patriarch-oriented history on its head by never referring to England’s most famous writer by name. He is merely The Tutor, or Agnes’s husband, or Susanna’s or Hamnet’s father. This twist comes off as perfectly natural amidst the insightful re-imaginings of Agnes Shakespeare (Anne Hathaway), and her three children. The smart, strong, grieving mother will stay in my thoughts at least as long as any of her husband’s characters.

A couple of these volumes were procured from Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath

“Why would she ever want to behold anything else, when she could be taking in the sight of Susanna’s ears, like the pale folds of roses, the winglike sweep of her tiny eyebrows, the dark hair, which clings to her crown as if painted there by a brush? There is nothing more exquisite than her child.”

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

In a year with minimal travel, more than ever I love a book that can transport me. This one balances two storylines, doubling the mileage. There’s the story of 16-year-old Nao in Tokyo, her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother Old Jiko, and Jiko’s son who was killed fighting (or appearing to fight) in WWII. There’s also Ruth’s story, as she finds Nao’s diary washed up on a remote Canadian Pacific island. This was a great epic about life and death and purpose, while being warm and cheekily authentic.

“Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit?”

Circe by Madeline Miller

Having written my own book from the perspective of Eve, I was eager to read another female-perspective story about an oft-maligned mythological character. Circe the witch, as portrayed here, tells her story in a way I really connected to; she’s empathetic to all others and unassuming about her own power. I preferred hearing about her with the gods and heroes as mere cameos rather than reading their often similarly told stories, and I appreciated the world-building more from this less entitled narrator.

“The darkness around us shimmered with clouds of the Trygon’s gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer.
“‘Then, child, make another.’”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Another epic—a bit more serious, a bit more dense, yet truly rewarding and beautiful. We have Marie in Vancouver, seeking her beloved sort-of-cousin Ai-Ming in China. Much of the book is recounting Ai-Ming’s stories about her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, in WWII China, then her father Sparrow adjusting to the fluctuating restrictions and demands of Communism, up to Ai-Ming’s own survival of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. We’re treated to examples of how love and creativity manifest themselves through oppression and separation. There’s so much in this book, maybe it best speaks for itself with this quote:

“‘Don’t ever try to be only a single thing, an unbroken human being. If so many people love you, can you honestly be just one thing?’”

Looking at this list, 9 of my top 10 reads last year were written by women. Not surprising as I only read 7 books by men in 2020. This wasn’t planned or anything, these were just the books I really wanted to read, and through a pandemic, and painful separations, they made me feel I was in the best possible hands.

What were your favourite reads in 2020? Did you have different or similar reactions to the books I’ve read? Do you think current events coloured your choices and your interpretations?

An Eventful Week

Bit of String: The Relevance of Little Earthquakes

As a late sixteenth birthday present, I took my son to Tori Amos’ concert in the Royal Albert Hall Wednesday night. He appeared to be the youngest in the huge audience, but he loves Tori’s music, often fully recreating it on the piano by ear, and he recognised every song she played by its opening chord, turning to me to whisper excitedly.

On our way to the concert, he said, ‘I don’t think I’ve asked you this before. I mean, I know you have her music and that’s how I got to know it, but is she one of your favourites, too?’

The answer, of course, is yes. I told him about the Columbia and BMG cassette tape deals of the mid-90s, how you could join their ‘clubs’ and get tapes at cut prices. I used these, as an adolescent, to buy all kinds of music to experiment with what I best related to. I bought Under the Pink as part of my explorations, with Little Earthquakes quick to follow.

She came out with lyrics we didn’t usually hear from singers. Before Alanis Morissette asked ‘Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?’ and Fiona Apple owned being a ‘Criminal’ and a ‘Sullen Girl,’ before Paula Cole got sarcastic about cowboys, there was Tori admitting she wanted to ‘smash the faces of those beautiful boys’ who took advantage of her as a child in ‘Precious Things.’ She reminded us, ‘You’re just an empty cage, Girl, if you kill the bird,’ and she knew we’d been ‘Silent All These Years.’ So I was thrilled to see her live, to enter the Royal Albert Hall, although it was an even bigger thrill to attend with my son and see his joy as he said, ‘I feel so light, I feel like I weigh nothing.’

The Royal Albert Hall stage set for Tori Amos.
The stage is set.

‘It’s the crowd’s reaction when she started playing “Silent All These Years,”’ he said as we wandered through London the next day, making a required stop at the American Embassy and then moving on to the sculpture exhibition in Regents Park and the London Zoo. ‘That’s what makes me so happy, that she’s still really relevant today, and she could see it for herself there.’

I’m intrigued that he takes that away from the event; as a musician he’s pondering relevance and as a teenager he’s already giving some consideration to generativity versus stagnation, Erikson’s late stage of psychological development.

But it also made me think about what makes music—or literature—relevant. In Tori’s case, I think there’s that revelatory quality, of communicating something true (at least for a lot of us) that hasn’t yet been voiced enough.

And as I’ve written before, it’s about creating beauty from pain.

Relevance at Cheltenham Literature Festival

Fast forward to Saturday. Cheltenham Literature Festival day! I love this festival, there’s so much on and the vibe is excellent. My husband came out for the evening with me and we saw comedian Robert Webb (of Mitchell and Webb, as in Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar) speak about his new book, How Not to Be a Boy. He spoke, wryly but warmly, about the difficulties of conforming to gender stereotypes.

Given that my son has such varied interests, you may see why the topic is relevant to me. Here, Mr. Webb has created a piece of work from his own sometimes painful childhood of feeling misfitted. He also put a particularly public voice to what may well be a private dilemma for a lot of people.

A Festival mural depicts travels against a backdrop of giant books.
Mural along one of the marquees at the Festival

Before that, I had been in the Sky Garden Tent with a few hundred others to see Sarah Waters receive the Times Award for Literary Excellence. Having read Fingersmith last year and considering it the most surprising twist I have ever read—and the most well-executed, she was the top of my must-see list for this year’s festival.

Sarah Waters managed to bring lesbian historical fiction into mainstream literature. I suspect that’s hugely relevant to a lot of people. For those of us not that way inclined, it’s still important to read that perspective. I also loved her answer when asked about planning one of her later novels. She said she’d just been through the hard break-up of a longterm relationship.

‘I thought, this has been really awful. So I might as well make some fucking money out of it!’

Fellow writers, I think we’ve all been there. Not making money out of it necessarily, but at least putting our tough times into artistic form, creating characters to carry those burdens for us.

Before the prize-giving, I’d watched a panel discussion on Being Other in Britain Today. Nikesh Shukla talked to June Sarpong and Reni Eddo-Lodge about their books. Check out Mr. Shukla’s campaign to start a quarterly journal of great writing from authors of colour, and the website for June Sarpong’s new book Diversify, which lists practical steps to tackle all our private prejudices.

It was a challenging decision which book to buy after this event. (I can’t buy every single one; I’d go broke.) I chose Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. It seemed the one I might need the most education on. When someone from another sphere of experience feels they’re not being heard, the logical step is undoubtedly for us to listen.

Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s book is based on a blog post she wrote a few years ago. She says she never imagined the piece would go viral; it was something she had to get out of her system. Once she had written her feelings of frustration at how her white friends seemed to ignore her concerns about race, she felt that was that, and didn’t assume dialogue would actually ensue.

Which goes to show, perhaps, that our writing can be relevant and impactful to us even when we don’t do it for a large audience. We can’t really predict how many others might need to read it, can we?

GCSE Curriculum: Is It Literature?

This Week’s Bit of String: A Student’s Holiday Mix-Up

‘Miss, aren’t you excited about Christmas? Remember, Jesus died then!’

It was one of those teaching moments when you need Rewind and Slow Down buttons. ‘You mean He died just before Easter,’ I said.

‘No, He was born at Easter; that’s why there’s eggs everywhere, and baby animals. We celebrate Him getting killed at Christmas, by hanging stuff on trees.’

My student, in his first GCSE year at the time, had misinterpreted these symbols and traditions. But he legitimised it with evidence.

The real reason dinosaurs went extinct...
There’s a sign like this in our school library.

These days we hear of fake news, false equivalency, and other such ‘post-truth’ terms. Dangerous as those are in the political realm, the literary world has operated on a somewhat post-truth basis for some time—with the essential caveat that you cite passages to support your claims.

Evidence-gathering and interpretation are essential skills we get from studying literature. Interpreting characters’ motives, which builds empathy and social skills; plus interpreting the culture and time period the author belongs to.

In the UK, Year 10 and 11 students (aged 14-16) must earn a General Certificate of Secondary Education in Literature. The national exam board offers a limited range of literary works for students to be tested on: one of six selected Shakespeare plays, one of seven nineteenth century novels, one of twelve dramas or novels written since 1914 (by British authors only), and one themed ‘cluster’ of fifteen poems. Adolescents spend two years studying these four works, and then take the exam.

The list of literature options changed controversially two years ago, dropping American classics such as Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird. After the fuss kicked up over the changes, do the remaining options qualify as literature?

Interpreting Characters

school-bathroom-graffiti-spoilers
Found in the girls’ toilet in the Art/English corridor. ‘George shoots Lennie.’ ‘Piggy and Simon die…’

To me, several of the GCSE offerings lack character depth. I haven’t read all of them, and I don’t dislike any of them. I’m just not sure they’re literature. An Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers share upper class villains, while several other books such as Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have quite clear-cut ones as well. Scrooge and Mr. Darcy undergo transformations, but their paths are quite obvious. There’s not a lot of mystery on why they change; students need do no serious detective work to examine it.

The most interesting characters are probably the plethora of bystanders and enablers in these tales: Mr. Bennett neither humouring nor challenging his wife’s ridiculous behaviour and Mrs. Lintott apparently looking the other way regarding her beloved co-worker’s paedophilic tendencies; the animal subjects of Animal Farm and the other boys on the Lord of the Flies Island.

Probing the motives of those who get caught in the action and end up almost unwittingly serving as catalysts is particularly relevant today, as far-right factions take hold in more governments. What drives a Macbeth and a Dr. Frankenstein? Let’s hope the exam board will encourage that sort of discussion.

Interpreting Culture and History

I don’t think Americans are going to suffer for no longer being represented in the GCSE curriculum; we’re not exactly a silent, repressed minority. The requirements for modern literature include stories by second-generation immigrants, and some about immigrants, too, plus Curious Incident, about a boy on the autism spectrum. And there are plenty of plots that highlight (sometimes glaringly, as in the aforementioned Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers) issues surrounding class and socioeconomic status.

It’s a decent start. Each one has its own argument to pick with the world, as I previously noted Salmon Rushdie said books must do. Each one attempts to harrow us a little bit, with various degrees of effectiveness.

books-fight
Spotted in an alley in Lewes. That’s right: books fight.

Teacher Tom Payne, writing in The Telegraph (which also, being The Telegraph, gave Conservative then-Minister of Education an opportunity to defend the changes in literature choices), raised this concern: ‘does this [rule that post-1914 literature studied must originate from the British Isles] mean that the question of Britain and its former empire has to be examined from the perspective of these islands? After all, much of the best literature on the subject comes from the lands Britain colonised: the Empire writes back.’
This is a good point. The removal of OMAM and TKAM disappointed me because I’d seen white students infatuated with the ‘n-word.’ Often, their perspectives matured after reading Of Mice and Men, as they realised the actual conditions from which the word derived its power; the threat and malice behind it. It’s important to keep those issues present in the literature we teach adolescents, because recognising others’ suffering, often at the hands of our own governments and even at benefit to ourselves, is an essential argument to keep putting before the world. And as fake news proliferates, the classics set a standard for us that’s not easily misinterpreted.