As 2015 draws to a close, it is a time for reflection. In that spirit, here is a countdown of the top 12 books that I have read in the past year, out of at least a hundred! Note: they need not necessarily have been published in 2015, and certainly haven’t been read in this order.
As a writer, I find each and every one of these authors inspirational. They have all, in different ways, shaped my thinking about what good writing, especially good literature, consists of.
12. Colm Tóibín Brooklyn
Clever and profound, Tóibín’s novel is about Irish immigration to the United States. It is subtle, sensitive and thought-provoking.
11. Hillary Mantell Bring Up The Bodies
Hillary Mantell is an author whose historical writing cannot be beaten for the sheer intelligence, the knowledge and her ability as a storyteller. Having been sceptical about historical novels, as a genre, before I read ‘Bring Up The Bodies,’ I can see why Mantell has so many prestigious awards to her name.
10. Manda Scott Into The Fire
I do not normally read detective-style stories, but the clever juxtaposition of the protagonist and Joan d’Arc made this story worthwhile and enthralling. Scott’s narrative cracks a great pace.
9. Lyndall Gordon Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson
Gordon gives us a real insight into one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of poetry. He enables us to understand Emily Dickinson and the motivation behind her poems.
8. Joseph Pierce Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile
A fascinating background into one of the greatest Russian writers, ‘A Soul in Exile’ . I never realised Solzhenitsyn had such a sense of humour.
7. Sunjev Sahora The Year of the Runaways
A deep and poignant story, which creates characters whose lives I could not possibly have understood, had I not read this novel. Not only a great read, but an important one, too.
6. Dave Boling Guernica
Boling mixes the fact of the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War with a fictional narrative about a Basque family, affected by the Franco regime. Tenderly characterised and beautifully brought to life.
5. Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive
A very important book by a very talented writer. I met Matt on my MA course earlier this year and he is a genuine inspiration. ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ banishes the myths and the stigmas of mental illness and shows how one person’s triumph led to brilliant writing. This book should be on school reading lists.
4. Sarah Winman A Year of Marvellous Ways
A beautiful and poetic novel, the central character being an 89-year-old Cornish woman, who demonstrates physical strength and self-sufficiency, and tells a gripping and impactful story about her past to a young man with much to learn. I met Sarah in a Waterstone’s in Truro, and love both of her books. She is an inspirational writer.
3. Patrick Gale A Place Called Winter
This is a profound book, which tells the story of the protagonist in flashbacks. The central character, Harry Cane, is banished to a life of hardship in Canada. The harsh backdrop is a stunning metaphor for Harry’s coming to terms with his needs, his lifestyle and his past.
2. Paul Kingsnorth The Wake
‘The Wake’ is one of the most important books any writer can read. It shows how a determined writer, who believes in what he writes, can triumph in the writing of something entirely original and innovative. ‘The Wake’ is set in 1066 and written in a language which Kingsnorth calls a ‘shadow tongue,’ a version of auld English updated for accessibility to modern readers. It is post-apocalyptic, bloody, bold and breathtaking.
1. Roddy Doyle The Guts
Roddy Doyle is the master at writing bittersweet stories. He is the master of evoking characters we can love for their honesty and he puts them in a setting where we cannot help but admire their vulnerable humanity. ‘The Guts’ is a continuation of ‘The Commitments’ in which Jimmy Rabbitte has bowel cancer. The story deals with Jimmy’s life and his desperate need to survive after he realises he is ill. No-one creates tenderness and bravery through humour in their characters quite like Roddy Doyle can. You will laugh, you will empathise and you will share in the unfolding tragedy.
I don’t have a sister and I never really wanted one. People have told me that older sisters can be bossy and younger ones sometimes behave in a tetchy and clingy way.
Of course, these stereotypes are not real and they are perhaps often fuelled by sibling rivalry. What about the older sister who fights your battles in the playground, or the younger one who is a calming influence and offers sound advice?
A sister could be really symbiotic, useful, fun, grounding: a friend who shares your history and biology.
So, having no sister of my own, and being confused by what friends who have sisters say – some love them and some don’t – I turn to literature to find answers. Am I missing out by not having a sister? Surprisingly, there are few role models for me to use as evidence in my search to answer my question. Would I have benefited from a sister and which one would I like to have had?
My first experience of sisters were Cinderella’s two ugly ones. The moral is that you have to be either a meek and pretty subservient heroine or a bossy, unprepossessing villain. These jealous and ugly broads bully in twos and have to cut their feet to bits to get a man!
That’s an ideal lesson for a little girl: judge women only by looks and fear all other women: they are your rivals in the dating game. I moved away from this idea before my sixth birthday.
Like many little girls, I read books like some people eat sweets or hang around in gangs. The appetite for female role models was insatiable but what could I feed it with? The Railway Children gave me no answers, nor the Famous Five, nor Katy and Clover Carr.
I didn’t want to be sister to any of those boring, predictable girls. So the March sisters beckoned: four Little Women, perfect stereotypes which could have come from a Hargreaves book: Miss Sensible, Miss Creative, Miss Prettily Vacuous and Little Miss Martyr. I have to admit, I enjoyed the book because there was precious little else around. Jo March can just about hack it as a role model when you’re nine.
At thirteen years old, I met the Bennets. I think they were solely responsible for my dislike of Austen, which has endured ever since. Don’t get me wrong; she’s a great writer and I so wish I liked her but I couldn’t care less about all those sisters whose conversation was about dancing at balls and batting eyelids at boys and marriage and money. Pride and Prejudice is a great classic, but the Bennets were never going to be my sisters.
Two years on and I found an interesting pair of Shakespeare’s sisters. Bianca the meek and Katherine the shrew, whose roles change after marriage, one newly assertive and one newly tamed. Depending on interpretation, of course; I have seen the scene where Katherine puts her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot ‘to do him ease’ done in some clever ways, suggesting a range of meanings.
However, I have no interest in subservience in any form and the moral is don’t marry the meek pretty one; she may turn into the shrew. Tame the feisty one instead? I move on.
Trust Angela Carter to give you some good girls to get your teeth into. Dora and Nora Chance, born out of wedlock, with a mad actor for a Dad. Two sisters who bond, who sing and dance through laughter and sadness, are great examples of sisters in literature. I’d have been happy having either of them in my family.
The same goes for The Color Purple: Celie and Nettie are close, supportive sisters, although their closeness is treated with suspicion and jealousy by the patriarchal Mister and they are separated as girls and don’t meet again for over thirty years. The real soul sister act in Walker’s novel is found in Celie’s relationship with the independent and talented Shug Avery. Now there’s a role model!
Examples of brothers bounce from the pages in literature: fighting, feuding, finding out dark secrets. From the wonderful Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the well-intentioned but often misinterpreted stereotypes of Russell’s Blood Brothers; Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean; Rowling’s The Tale of Three Brothers, Munro’s Monsieur Les Deux Chapeaux; Miller’s Death of a Salesman: examples of exciting novels and plays about men’s fraternal exploits abound. It must be great to have a brother!
I believe we often select our own spiritual siblings and I know many women and men whom I consider as family, so I don’t have a strong desire to invent a secret sister any more.
To be honest, literature hasn’t helped me much in my quest to discover whether I’m missing out or not. All it has done is to offer me a range of examples of sisters, most of whom I’d probably prefer not to have had. This leads me to conclude that there is perhaps a niche in the market here for new books about women who have strong, interesting and productive relationships and who share one or more parents.
When Hamlet tells Polonius he is reading ‘words, words, words,’ I think he is implying that each page is the same, that the words written there have no relevant meaning and go on and on for the reader with no real impact or benefit.
Sarah Winman’s novel ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ is a delight of words. She is in touch with her inner poet and each word is selected and combined to create impact and emotion, to evoke a picture or to deepen a character.
On my MA Professional Writing course, we were told to keep our writing clean and simple, a lesson I find invaluable now I write for a living.
Most literature does not benefit from being clogged with adverbs and packed with so many words that the meaning becomes muddled. Yet Sarah Winman’s ability with words is a gift and she uses language to involve and enthrall the reader from the first page to the final chapter.
I met Sarah at a book launch in a Waterstones. She is a modest, warm, intelligent woman who enjoys sharing her passion for words. Her protagonist, Marvellous Ways, is an older woman who is wise and solitary.
My own protagonist in my current novel, Evelyn Connolly, is involved in a journey of discovery, both physical and emotional, and I was interested that we had both picked a woman in her later years as a protagonist. The latin word for old woman is anus: it is a neuter noun, and most old female protagonists in television and plays are witches, crones or grannies who have little individuality: they are past it, whatever ‘it’ happens to be.
Both Marvellous Ways and Evelyn Connolly are bursting with power and personality, and I asked Sarah if her motive for creating such a heroine was political. She agreed that when writers are of a certain age – and we are both baby boomers – we demand that our protagonists are meaningful and strike a chord with readers.
Marvellous Ways has lived and loved; she can heal; she has a story to tell and her story is both a parable and a poem. Sarah Winman’s language is insistent; she demands to write in a language rich in beautiful sounds and vital meaning. As an author, she has inspired me to be unafraid of the impact of words; they should be sonorous and strong, keeping character and action buoyant.
I recommend both of Sarah Winman’s novels absolutely; A Year of Marvellous Ways, the latest book, is a heroine for generations of us who will live to be old and will refuse to lose our identity in old age. As writers we want our readers to be delighted by character and action, but we also want them to share a journey which has a meaning on a physical and allegorical level and to enjoy a character who has the strength to live on.
Marvellous Ways is an inspirational character; she is gutsy and sensitive; she never stops learning; she is a source of love and an enabler of others. She is a paragon for woman of all ages.
If I were to find myself in a position where I would write a thesis about someone who had a creative and intriguing life, a contender for my research and attention would be the priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, (1844-1889). He had a fascinating and tragic time on earth: his life was short and his experiences harsh, but he wrote poems which are both visually and aurally beautiful. Given his stoical dedication to Catholicism after his conversion, when he was urged to suppress his creativity, it is incredible that he was able to achieve writing of such emotional depth and meaning.
Born to Anglican parents, Hopkins won a scholarship and he was subsequently educated at Oxford, at Balliol, where he studied classics. He took vows as a Jesuit priest in 1870, choosing the austere life of chastity, poverty and obedience. On his deathbed, his last words are said to have been: ‘I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.’
Yet most of his poetry remained unpublished until after his death and, because of his dedication and faith, he tried to suppress his desire to describe the physical beauty of the natural world: a creative man, he also wrote music and sketched, but was committed to sacrifice any personal ambition, so he burned many of his his early works.
A Jesuit’s workload was heavy and he struggled with his hard life in Wales, the North of England and Dublin. His work as a parish priest was exhausting and he often felt that his prayers did not reach God and he suffered from bouts of deep depression. He struggled with ill health for years and his eyesight failed.
His lifestyle and workload and his belief in an austere God forced him to subdue any egotism which might occur as a result of his artistic creativity. He was lonely and unwell, struggling with the dilemma of being a writer who glorified in nature but was not allowed to publish his poems. He spent his last years in Dublin where where he died of typhoid, aged 44.
Behind this private, constricted man who was not the most effective teacher or priest is the most incredible poetic genius, although his poetry lacked real acknowledgement in his lifetime. Influenced by the Welsh language, he used archaic (eg: sillion) and dialect words and devised a number of new ones (eg: twindled) and his use of hyphens, compound adjectives and alliteration combined to create the evocative ‘sprung rhythm’.
At 5 feet 2 inches tall, Hopkins did not see himself as a prepossessing man: it is a paradox that his sensuous religious poetry comes from his need to restrict and repress his feelings. One explanation of this may be to do with his relationship with Digby Dolben, four years his junior and the cousin of his Oxonian friend, later the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. Hopkins corresponded with Dolben and wrote poems about him, but then was told by his High Anglian Confessor to sever the contact.
Dolben drowned in 1867 and Hopkins was deeply affected. His poems are marked by a powerful eroticism, which could be all the more poignant and tragic, given his suppressed desires. In his poetic writing, he fuses nature, religion and love, the imagery going beyond sublimation to encompass yearning and to show his stifled appetite: many writers have interpreted his works as an exegesis for his homosexual love. His poetry can be identified for its striking language and his extensive use of onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance and also rhyme, which appears both internally and at the end of lines. His spondaic meter and visual language communicate his joy and longing, his delight in the beauty of nature and his fear of its powers, controlled by a changeable, magnificent God.
Some of his most famous poems include God’s Grandeur and Pied Beauty, which glorify the wonders of divine creation but also show him determined to escape the constraints of conventional metre and running rhythm. The Wreck of the Deutschland is an ode in stanza form, dedicated to the nuns who died in the storm, but it is also a lyrical theodicy, attempting to justify the cruel ways of God to mankind.
His language expresses his adoration and his incredulity of God’s powers but Hopkins has a clear dilemma with the works of a ruthless God and his personal strivings for submissiveness and resignation, and his feelings of abandonment , found in lines such as :
‘and dost thou touch me afresh? Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.’
The male figure of Christ enabled him to express his glorification of God but also to demonstrate a human passion for physical beauty and erotic love.
He wrote the sonnet, The Windhover, in 1877. It can be read on several levels and it is certainly a beautiful piece of writing by the genius Hopkins, whether he is talking about his passion for God, for nature, or for man.
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom
of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! No wonder of it: shèer plòd makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermilion.