A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Daniella, tagged me on Facebook. “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. It is not about the ‘right’ book or great work of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Does not have to be in order.’
I should then have nominated 10 friends to be tagged in turn. I am hopeless at this. By the time I have got round to it, all my friends have already been tagged by someone and there is no-one left to choose. But I did write my list – pretty much off the top of my head and here it is:
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith
Lawrence Block, Out on the Cutting Edge
Taichi Yamada, Strangers
Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did at School
Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon
Susan Varley, Badger’s Parting Gifts
Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War
Note that I am not saying these are the best or even my favourite books, just a few that have stayed with me. This list is all fiction. Maybe I’ll do non-fiction another time.
This is a good time to take stock of the previous year and plan for the next one. For me the reading highlight of 2013 had to be Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It towered above everything else. What a book, and what a man.
The crime novel that’s stuck in my mind is one that I read at the beginning of the year: Asa Larrson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past: brilliantly atmospheric, many-layered, haunting. Just superb.Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason, another outstanding writer and a favourite of mine, deserves an honourable mention. But what about non-fiction? I didn’t read very much last year, but I am very impressed by Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which I have just finished reading and will blog about in due course.
It’s been a year when I’ve done a fair bit of rereading and perhaps my resolution could be to read a bit more adventurously. Being in a book group helps as I read books suggested by other people and am often glad I did. Having said that, every year we choose an optional big read, something that we’d struggle to read for one of our monthly meetings, and this year it is Middlemarch, which I have read umpteen times but am very happy to read again. And I’ll be rereading the Maigret novels as they are reissued by Penguin, one a month, in the order they were written (great idea: some of them are difficult to get hold of).
But I’ll be trying some new writers, too – Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – is our current reading group choice, and maybe I’ll follow Mrs Peabody’s example and join her on a reading challenge. So lots to look forward to, but I am well aware that I could be writing more, so that’s my main resolution: to produce more for others to read. So watch this space . . .
A very happy New Year to my readers.
I’ve just read Norwegian by Night, by Derek B. Miller. It won the CWA John Creasey Dagger for best debut novel this year and it was a worthy winner. Sheldon Horowitz, elderly watch-repairer and Korean veteran, suffering from dementia, is living in Oslo with his grandaughter when he witnesses the murder of a young woman and flees the scene with her young son. Like all the best crime novel it is about far more than a crime: it’s about loss and grief and redemption. I thought it was excellent, though I did feel it ended a little bit abruptly. But then, endings are very, very difficult to do well. By that I don’t mean the climax of the story, but those last few lines that ideally will linger in the imagination of the reader. If the first lines matter because they must hook your reader and draw her in, the last lines should make her want to read the writer’s next novel.
I’ve often struggled with how to end a novel. Short stories tend to be easier in that respect, perhaps because they tend to be all of a piece, just one idea, and the last line can be the pay-off. I like Truffaut’s idea that his films should end on a rising note and the last moments should say ‘happy.’ it is hard to write about endings without giving too much away, but this is how Vasily Grossman concludes Life and Fate. A wounded soldier has returned to his wife and daughter and walks with his wife in the still snow-bound forest. It’s April:
‘It was still cold and dark, but soon the doors and shutters would be flung open. Soon the house would be filled with the tears and laughter of children, with the hurried steps of a loved woman, and the measured gait of the master of the house.
‘They stood there, holding their bags, in silence.’
In my previous post I wrote about a book I was reading when I was nineteen. It was a wonderful time in my reading life, when I read voraciously: WAR AND PEACE, ANNA KARENINA, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, quite apart from the books that I was required to read for my English degree.I used to be so moved by them, so caught up, touched, amazed, shocked. It’s been a long time since I was swept away like that by a novel but it happened this summer, when I read Vasily Grossman’s LIFE AND FATE and was moved to tears. It has to be one of greatest novels of the twentieth century. Completed in 1960, it was confiscated by the KGB, only the second time a book was ‘arrested.’ The other book was The Gulag Archipelago. Grossman died in 1964. The novel was smuggled into the West and published in 1980. Set around the time of the Battle of Stalingrad, it is a panoramic novel, describing the lives of one particular family, but spreading out far beyond it to encompass many viewpoints, not just in a Russian labour camp, but also German concentration camp, and takes us behind both the Russian and the German front lines. Grossman drew on his own experiences both as a war correspondent and on a more personal level. Victor, one of the central characters, is riven with guilt over the death of his mother, whom he failed to get evacuated before the German invasion. This was Grossman’s own experience as was an episode when a grenade lands between a soldier’s feet and fails to detonate. It sounds like a sombre read, and it is, but there are flashes of humour, comedy even, some of it is bitterly ironic. Grossman brilliantly describes the psychology of those caught up in the workings of a totalitarian state, the convoluted thought processes through which the betrayal of friends and ideals can be justified. And the novel is also deeply moving, most of all in the section on the journey and arrival at a German death camp of a childess woman doctor and a solitary six year old boy. She turns down a chance to save herself when doctors are taken out of the line, so that David won’t go alone into the gas chamber. LIFE AND FATE is a truly wonderful novel, a genuine masterpiece.
That was one of my first reactions to reading on my Kindle Paperwhite which my husband gave me for my birthday in December. Given that I am thinking of making two of my Cassandra novels available as ebooks, it seemed time to try out the technology for myself. It has made me more conscious of the way that I read, which is not always in a strictly chronological order. Yes, that is the general thrust, I do (mostly) start at the beginning and go through to the end, but I tend to roam about, sometimes going back to remind myself about a character or something that has happened earlier in the novel, sometimes skipping forward a bit and then doubling back. It is not impossible to do this with a Kindle, but it is quite a bit harder. Reading something that has a fairly straightforward narrative arc, like many crime novels, is fine, but I wouldn’t want to read War and Peace on a Kindle. The big read that my book group choses every year as an optional extra is currently Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate which is a hefty 855 pages. I have bought that as a proper book, because I will need to read it over a substantial period of time and will want to have it all at my fingertips all the time. Another thing: I hadn’t fully appreciated how much I love books as physical objects, even when they are battered old paperbacks – sometimes especially when they are battered old paperbacks holding the memories of where I first read them or bought them. So is the Kindle the total washout that I thought it might be at first? No, I am using it, but mostly in bed and mostly for crime novels. It is going to be very useful for travelling,though what happens if it gets broken or stolen or lost? I just know it will be belt and braces for me and I shall be tucking in the odd paperback and World’s Classic just in case. Speed of access is of course another advantage.The other day I wanted to read something by Washington Irving as reseach for something I’m writing. My first thought was the London Library, but then I saw that it was free to download – and I didn’t have to wait for it to be posted out to me or pay for the postage. So, my Kindle is here to stay, but it won’t be completely replacing the printed word for me, as it has for some of my friends. And it won’t be replacing the London Library either.