I have been keeping lists of books which I want to read since the age of fifteen. Every time I saw a wonderful-looking tome in a bookshop, on my library’s catalogue, or whilst scrolling through Goodreads, blogs, and literary articles, I made a note of it. Six filled notebooks later, I have decided that 2017 will be the year of searching out and reading books already on my TBR list. Things are getting a little out of control already, and if I continue to add to my list, I can see myself never getting through it!
This isn’t to say that I won’t be adding the odd tome here and there when it comes highly recommended, or when I read a particularly persuasive or intriguing review. I just want to cut back almost entirely, and stop writing down hundreds of books every month (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but at least that’s what it feels like I’ve been doing!).
I will be choosing every book from my list at random, but have decided to give it a little structure by starting with my earliest notebook, and going ahead almost chronologically. I won’t be making a note of which books I have read from which notebook other than on my yearly challenge, but hopefully this way forward will work well, and will make me feel as though all of my reading is manageable.
How many books make up your TBR list? How do you keep track of it? Do you actively search for books from it, or are you like me, preferring to write new tomes down as soon as you find them?
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken *****
‘”This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending,” writes Elizabeth McCracken in her powerful, inspiring memoir. A prize-winning, successful novelist in her 30s, McCracken was happy to be an itinerant writer and self-proclaimed spinster. But suddenly she fell in love, got married, and two years ago was living in a remote part of France, working on her novel, and waiting for the birth of her first child.This book is about what happened next. In her ninth month of pregnancy, she learned that her baby boy had died. How do you deal with and recover from this kind of loss? Of course you don’t–but you go on. And if you have ever experienced loss or love someone who has, the company of this remarkable book will help you go on.With humor and warmth and unfailing generosity, McCracken considers the nature of love and grief. She opens her heart and leaves all of ours the richer for it.’
I reread An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination for my Reading France project this year. McCracken, whom I first discovered back in 2007 when a kind human in Waterstone’s recommended the fantastic The Giant’s House to me, is one of my favourite contemporary authors. She is consistent, thoughtful, and striking in her prose. This is the only piece of non-fiction which she has released to date, and it is a heartbreakingly honest work which details the stillbirth of her first son, Pudding. The fragmented prose style, with its many short chapters made up of different memories, hopes, and dreams, is incredibly fitting, whilst giving the whole such depth. An Exact Replica… is a beautiful and brave memorial to a lost son.
Strange Things by Margaret Atwood ****
‘Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.’
I found out about Margaret Atwood’s Strange Things whilst reading through Kirsty Logan’s blog, and noting down all of those books which she has loved. I have read – and largely enjoyed – several Atwood books to date, but this marked my first taste of her non-fiction. I am rather obsessed at present with accounts of northerly snow-covered spaces, in which barely anyone lives.
Strange Things, which is subtitled ‘The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature’ therefore seemed a perfect tome for me. It is comprised of four essays, which were originally given at the University of Oxford. Her rendering of these essays is incredibly readable, and each, as anyone who is at all familiar with Atwood’s work, is so intelligently written. The essays, which focus upon four core stereotypical representations of Canadian life and literature, are varied and memorable, and this is a volume which I would recommend to any world traveller.
I have been reading far more essay collections over the last couple of years, and wondered which collections were seen as the pinnacles of an already great genre. I found the following list on Flavorwire (see here), and thought I would type it up, along with a blurb, and see how many I have made part of my reading life to date. Pitifully, the only one which I have read is Woolf’s The Common Reader!
1. The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
‘Aleksandar Hemon’s lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy’s life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man’s life is about poking at the pretensions of the city’s elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better journalism. And then, his life in Chicago: watching from afar as war breaks out in Sarajevo and the city comes under siege, no way to return home; his parents and sister fleeing Sarajevo with the family dog, leaving behind all else they had ever known; and Hemon himself starting a new life, his own family, in this new city. And yet this is not really a memoir. The Book of My Lives, Hemon’s first book of nonfiction, defies convention and expectation. It is a love song to two different cities; it is a heartbreaking paean to the bonds of family; it is a stirring exhortation to go out and play soccer—and not for the exercise. It is a book driven by passions but built on fierce intelligence, devastating experience, and sharp insight. And like the best narratives, it is a book that will leave you a different reader—a different person, with a new way of looking at the world—when you’ve finished. For fans of Hemon’s fiction, The Book of My Lives is simply indispensable; for the uninitiated, it is the perfect introduction to one of the great writers of our time.‘
2. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
‘The first nonfiction work by one of the most distinctive prose stylists of our era, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem “remains, forty years after its first publication, the essential portrait of America particularly California in the sixties. It focuses on such subjects as John Wayne and Howard Hughes, growing up a girl in California, ruminating on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room, and, especially, the essence of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the counterculture.’
3. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
‘A sharp-eyed, uniquely humane tour of America’s cultural landscape from high to low to lower than low by the award-winning young star of the literary nonfiction world.In “Pulphead, “John Jeremiah Sullivan takes us on an exhilarating tour of our popular, unpopular, and at times completely forgotten culture. Simultaneously channeling the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion, Sullivan shows us with a laidback, erudite Southern charm that’s all his own how we really (no, really) live now. In his native Kentucky, Sullivan introduces us to Constantine Rafinesque, a nineteenth-century polymath genius who concocted a dense, fantastical prehistory of the New World. Back in modern times, Sullivan takes us to the Ozarks for a Christian rock festival; to Florida to meet the alumni and straggling refugees of MTV’s “Real World, “who’ve generated their own self-perpetuating economy of minor celebrity; and all across the South on the trail of the blues. He takes us to Indiana to investigate the formative years of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose and then to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina and back again as its residents confront the BP oil spill. Gradually, a unifying narrative emerges, a story about this country that we’ve never heard told this way. It’s like a fun-house hall-of-mirrors tour: Sullivan shows us who we are in ways we’ve never imagined to be true. Of course we don’t know whether to laugh or cry when faced with this reflection it’s our inevitable sob-guffaws that attest to the power of Sullivan’s work’
4. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
‘Rarely does the debut of a new writer garner such attention & acclaim. The excitement began the moment “The Fourth State of Matter,” one of the fourteen extraordinary personal narratives in this book, appeared in the pages of the New Yorker. It increased when the author received a prestigious Whiting Foundation Award in November 1997, & it continued as the hardcover edition of The Boys of My Youth sold out its first printing even before publication. The author writes with perfect pitch as she takes us through one woman’s life – from childhood to marriage & beyond – & memorably captures the collision of youthful longing & the hard intransigences of time & fate.’
5. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
‘Do lobsters feel pain? Did Franz Kafka have a funny bone? What is John Updike’s deal, anyway? And what happens when adult video starlets meet their fans in person? David Foster Wallace answers these questions and more in essays that are also enthralling narrative adventures. Whether covering the three-ring circus of a vicious presidential race, plunging into the wars between dictionary writers, or confronting the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker at the annual Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace projects a quality of thought that is uniquely his and a voice as powerful and distinct as any in American letters.’
6. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
‘Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in “Notes of a Native Son “capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in The Harlem Ghetto to a sobering Journey to Atlanta. “Notes of a Native Son”inaugurated Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the twentieth century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic. His criticism on topics such as the paternalism of white progressives or on his own friend Richard Wright s work is pointed and unabashed. He was also one of the few writing on race at the time who addressed the issue with a powerful mixture of outrage at the gross physical and political violence against black citizens and measured understanding of their oppressors, which helped awaken a white audience to the injustices under their noses. Naturally, this combination of brazen criticism and unconventional empathy for white readers won Baldwin as much condemnation as praise. “Notes” is the book that established Baldwin s voice as a social critic, and it remains one of his most admired works. The essays collected here create a cohesive sketch of black America and reveal an intimate portrait of Baldwin s own search for identity as an artist, as a black man, and as an American.’
7. Naked by David Sedaris
‘A riotous collection of memoirs which explores the absurd hilarity of modern life and creates a wickedly incisive portrait of an all-too-familiar world. It takes Sedaris from his humiliating bout with obsessive behaviour in ‘A Plague of Tics’ to the title story, where he is finally forced to face his naked self in the company of lunatics. At this soulful and moving moment, he brushes cigarette ashes from his pubic hair and wonders what it all means. This remarkable journey into his own life follows a path of self-effacement and a lifelong search for identity leaving himself both under suspicion and over dressed.’
8. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
‘ Against Interpretation was Susan Sontag’s first collection of essays and made her name as one of the most incisive thinkers of our time. Sontag was among the first critics to write about the intersection between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms, and to give them equal value as valid topics, shown here in her epoch-making pieces ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘Against Interpretation’. Here too are impassioned discussions of Sartre, Camus, Simone Weil, Godard, Beckett, Levi-Strauss, science-fiction movies, psychoanalysis and contemporary religious thought. Originally published in 1966, this collection has never gone out of print and has been a major influence on generations of readers, and the field of cultural criticism, ever since.’
9. The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
‘This is Virginia Woolf’s first collection of essays, published in 1925. In them, she attempts to see literature from the point of view of the ‘common reader’ – someone whom she, with Dr Johnson, distinguished from the critic and the scholar. She read, and wrote, as an outsider: a woman set to school in her father’s library, denied the educational privileges of her male siblings – and with no fixed view of what constitutes ‘English Literature’. What she produced is an eccentric and unofficial literary and social history from the fourteenth to the twentieth century, with an excursion to ancient Greece thrown in. She investigates medieval England, tsarist Russia, Elizabethan playwrights, Victorian novelists and modern essayists. When she published this book Woolf’s fame as a novelist was already established: now she was hailed as a brilliant interpretative critic. Here, she addresses her ‘common reader’ in the remarkable prose and with all the imagination and gaiety that are the stamp of her genius.’
10. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
‘In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard fixes her entrancing gaze and powerful sense of wonder on the natural world. Whether watching a sublime lunar eclipse or locking eyes with a wild weasel, Dillard captures the grand and miniature miracles of our universe. Annie Dillard is one of the most respected and influential figures in contemporary non-fiction and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. With Teaching a Stone to Talk, she illuminates the world around us with a new and glowing light.’
11. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man by Henry Louis Gates Jr
‘In these stunning portraits of prominent black American men, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., takes us behind closed doors and into the lives, minds, and experiences of some remarkable people to reveal, through stories of individual lives, much about American society and race today. James Baldwin, Colin Powell, Harry Belafonte, Bill T. Jones, Louis Farrakhan, Anatole Broyard, Albert Murray – all these men came from modest circumstances and all achieved preeminence. These men and others speak of their lives with candor and intimacy, and what emerges from this portfolio of influential men is a strikingly varied and profound set of ideas about what it means to be a black man in America today.’
12. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer
‘Geoff Dyer has earned the devotion of passionate fans on both sides of the Atlantic through his wildly inventive, romantic novels as well as several brilliant, uncategorizable works of nonfiction. All the while he has been writing some of the wittiest, most incisive criticism we have on an astonishing array of subjects music, literature, photography, and travel journalism that, in Dyer’s expert hands, becomes a kind of irresistible self-reportage. “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition “collects twenty-five years of essays, reviews, and misadventures. Here he is pursuing the shadow of Camus in Algeria and remembering life on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s; reflecting on Richard Avedon and Ruth Orkin, on the status of jazz and the wonderous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, on the sculptor ZadKine and the saxophonist David Murray (in the same essay), on his heroes Rebecca West and Ryszard Kapuscinski, on haute couture and sex in hotels. Whatever he writes about, his responses never fail to surprise. For Dyer there is no division between the reflective work of the critic and the novelist’s commitment to lived experience: they are mutually illuminating ways to sharpen our perceptions. His is the rare body of work that manages to both frame our world and enlarge it.’
13. Art and Ardor by Cynthia Ozick
‘Among the pieces included in this collection of wide-ranging essays are two extended essays on Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and analyses of the work of contemporaries including Updike and Capote.’
14. No More Nice Girls by Ellen Willis
‘With characteristic intelligence, wit, and feminist insight, Ellen Willis addresses democracy as she sees it: a commitment to individual freedom and egalitarian self-government in every area of social, economic, and cultural life. Moving between scholarly and down-to-earth activist writing styles, Willis confronts the conservative backlash that has slowly eroded democratic ideals and advances of the 1960s as well as the internal debates that have frequently splintered the left.’
15. The War Against Cliche by Martin Amis
‘Like John Updike, Martin Amis is the pre-eminent novelist-critic of his generation. The War Against Cliche is a selection of his reviews and essays over the past quarter-century. It contains pieces on Cervantes, Milton, Donne, Coleridge, Jane Austen, Dickens, Kafka, Philip Larkin, Joyce, Waugh, Lowry, Nabokov, F. R. Leavis, V. S. Pritchett, William Burroughs, Anthony Burgess, Angus Wilson, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Shiva and V. S. Naipaul, Kurt Vonnegut, Iris Murdoch, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard, Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris – and John Updike. Other subjects include chess, nuclear weapons, masculinity, screen censorship, juvenile violence, Andy Warhol, Hillary Clinton, and Margaret Thatcher.’
16. Cultural Amnesia by Clive James
‘Organized from A through Z, and containing over 100 essays, Cultural Amnesia is the ultimate guide to the twentieth century. ‘This is a beautiful book. James proves himself not only to be in possession of a towering intellect, but a singular ability to communicate his passions’ Observer ‘Witty, insightful and unashamedly erudite, the book is a superb miscellany of 20th-century cultural and political subjects’ The Sunday Times ‘Over the past forty years James has been scribbling notes in the margins of the books he has read …and this is the result.’
17. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
‘Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director Nora Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally”, “Heartburn”, “Sleepless in Seattle”, “You’ve Got Mail”) turns her sharp wit on to her own life. It includes: Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from; if the shoe doesn’t fit in the shoe store, it’s never going to fit; when your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you; anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for by the age of forty-five; the empty nest is underrated; and if only one third of your clothes are mistakes, you’re ahead of the game.’
18. Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
‘Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a matchless writer, debater and humanist. Throughout his life he shone the light of reason and truth into the eyes of charlatans and hucksters, exposing falsehood and decrying hypocrisy wherever he found it. With his passing, the world has lost a great soul, the written word one of its finest advocates and those who stand for freedom everywhere have lost one of their clearest voices. Arguably collects Hitchens’ writing on politics, literature and religion when he was at the zenith of his career; it is the indispensible companion to the finest English essayist since Orwell.’
19. The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erlich
‘Writing of hermits, cowboys, changing seasons, and the wind, Ehrlich draws us into her personal relationship with this “planet of Wyoming” she has come to call home. She captures the incredible beauty and the demanding harshness of natural forces in these remote reaches of the West, and the depth, tenderness and humor of the quirky souls who live there.Ehrlich, a former filmmaker and urbanite, presents in these essays a fresh and vibrant tribute to the new life she has chosen.’
20. The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
‘The breakout book from “the funniest writer in America”–not to mention an official “Genius”–his first nonfiction collection ever. George Saunders’s first foray into nonfiction is comprised of essays on literature, travel, and politics. At the core of this unique collection are Saunders’s travel essays based on his trips to seek out the mysteries of the “Buddha Boy” of Nepal; to attempt to indulge in the extravagant pleasures of Dubai; and to join the exploits of the minutemen at the Mexican border. Saunders expertly navigates the works of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Esther Forbes, and leads the reader across the rocky political landscape of modern America. Emblazoned with his trademark wit and singular vision, Saunders’s endeavor into the art of the essay is testament to his exceptional range and ability as a writer and thinker. ‘
21. Against Joie de Vivre by Philippe Lopate
‘This rejoinder to the cult of hedonism and forced conviviality moves from a critique of the false sentimentalization of children and the elderly to a sardonic look at the social rite of the dinner party, on to a moving personal testament to the “hungry soul.” Lopate’s special gift is his ability to give us not only sophisticated cultural commentary in a dazzling collection of essays but also to bring to his subjects an engaging honesty and openness that invite us to experience the world along with him. Also included here are Lopate’s inspiring account of his production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with a group of preadolescents, a look at the tradition of the personal essay, and a soul-searching piece on the suicide of a schoolteacher and its effect on his students and fellow teachers. By turns humorous, learned, celebratory, and elegiac, Lopate displays a keen intelligence and a flair for language that turn bits of common, everyday life into resonant narrative. This collection maintains a conversational charm while taking the contemporary personal essay to a new level of complexity and candor.’
22. Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland
‘Called the best essayist of his time by luminaries like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Edward Abbey, Edward Hoagland brings readers his ultimate collection. In Sex and the River Styx, the author’s sharp eye and intense curiosity shine through in essays that span his childhood exploring the woods in his rural Connecticut, his days as a circus worker, and his travels the world over in his later years. Here, we meet Hoagland at his best: traveling to Kampala, Uganda, to meet a family he’d been helping support only to find a divide far greater than he could have ever imagined; reflecting on aging, love, and sex in a deeply personal, often surprising way; and bringing us the wonder of wild places, alongside the disparity of losing them, and always with a twist that brings the genre of nature writing to vastly new heights. His keen dissection of social realities and the human spirit will both startle and lure readers as they meet African matriarchs, Tibetan yak herders, circus aerialists, and the strippers who entertained college boys in 1950s Boston. Says Howard Frank Mosher in his foreword, the self-described rhapsodist “could fairly be considered our last, great transcendentalist.’
23. Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith
‘Changing My Mind is a collection of essays by Zadie Smith on literature, cinema, art – and everything in between. ‘A supremely good read. Smith writes about reading and writing with such infectious zeal and engaging accessibility that it makes you want to turn up at her house and demand tutoring’ Dazed and Confused ‘Alarmingly good’ Metro ‘Striding with open hearted zest and eloquence between fiction (from EM Forster to David Foster Wallace) and travel, movies and comedy, family and community in a self-portrait that charts the evolution of a formidable talent. In lovely elegiac pieces on her late father Harvey, D-Day veteran and Tony Hancock fan, Smith also delivers some of the most affecting autobiographical writing in any form’ – Independent, Books of the Year ‘Brilliant. She’s friendly and conspiratorial, voicing the kind of clever theories we could imagine ourselves holding if only we were as articulate as Zadie Smith’ – Vogue ‘Fascinating. Smith has the gift of showing you how she reads and thinks; watching her do it makes you feel smarter and more observant. Her account of her struggles as an author may be the most authentic, unglamorous description of novel-writing ever put on paper’ – Time’
24. My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
‘Meghan Daum is one of the most celebrated nonfiction writers of her generation, widely recognised for her fresh, provocative approach with which she unearths the hidden fault lines in the American landscape. From her well-remembered New Yorker essays about the financial demands of big city ambition and the ethereal, strangely old fashioned allure of cyber relationships to her dazzlingly hilarious riff in Harper’s about musical passions that give way to middle brow paraphernalia, Daum delves into the center of things while closely examining the detritus that spills out along the way. With precision and well balanced irony, Daum implicates herself as readily as she does the targets that fascinate and horrify her.’
25. The White Album by Joan Didion
‘First published in 1979, The White Album records indelibly the upheavals and aftermaths of the 1960s. Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of American autobiography.’
How many of these collections have you read? Which pique your interest the most? Which are your favourite essay collections?
I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between. I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work. The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.
The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later. This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press. Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work. She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry. The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to. Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’. Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry.
The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’. The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles. She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against. She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear. You must have something in your hands all the time. You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it. One can simply get too tired.”‘
Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel. We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh. She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her. Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques. Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.
The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience… I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again. I was not myself for a while…”‘. The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.
Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside. Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine. There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation. The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing. If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.
We begin this edition of The Book Trail with an incredibly thoughtful and well-written essay collection, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. As always, I am using the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list of fantastically intriguing tomes.
1. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
‘What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Fascinated by the experience, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives – from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism – Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed. Humane, provocative and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.‘
2. The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin
‘When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding, a way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender. The Dead Ladies Project is an account of that journey—but it’s also much, much more. Fascinated by exile, Crispin travels an itinerary of key locations in its literary map, of places that have drawn writers who needed to break free from their origins and start afresh. As she reflects on William James struggling through despair in Berlin, Nora Barnacle dependant on and dependable for James Joyce in Trieste, Maud Gonne fomenting revolution and fostering myth in Dublin, or Igor Stravinsky starting over from nothing in Switzerland, Crispin interweaves biography, incisive literary analysis, and personal experience into a rich meditation on the complicated interactions of place, personality, and society that can make escape and reinvention such an attractive, even intoxicating proposition. Personal and profane, funny and fervent, The Dead Ladies Project ranges from the nineteenth century to the present, from historical figures to brand-new hangovers, in search, ultimately, of an answer to a bedrock question: How does a person decide how to live their life?‘
3. The Bad Mother by Marguerite Andersen
‘Translated from the award-winning French novel La mauvaise mère, prolific author Marguerite Andersen fictionalizes the important moments of her life resulting in this unflinching account of her relationship with her three children and her years spent following her caprices and lovers, trying to regain the agency she lost when she became a mother. Born in Germany, Marguerite was just into her twenties when she moved to Tunisia with her French lover. She thought she was choosing a life of adventure and freedom, but what she got was children and a marriage that quickly became abusive. Constrained by the minutiae of everyday life, Marguerite longs for the agency to make her own choices. Eventually she flees, leaving her children behind for a year and a half. As the world labels her a wife, a mother, and eventually a bad mother, Marguerite wrestles with her own definition of personhood. Can you love your children and want your own life at the same time? A half-century later, this fictionalized account of Andersen’s life is written with brutal honesty, in spare, pithy, and often poetic prose, as she expresses her own conflicted feelings concerning a difficult time and the impact it had on her sense of self. Andersen confronts the large and small choices that she made—the times she stayed and the times she didn’t—all the while asking, “What kind of mother am I?”‘
4. Fifty Days of Solitude by Doris Grumbach
‘Faced with a rare opportunity to experiment with solitude, Doris Grumbach decided to live in her coastal Maine home without speaking to anyone for fifty days. The result is a beautiful meditation about what it means to write, to be alone, and to come to terms with mortality.‘
5. Mad in Pursuit by Violette Leduc
‘In the second remarkable volume of her life story, Mad In Pursuit, the war is finally over. A new generation of writers has appeared in Paris, among them Camus, Genet, Startre, and Cocteau, and every day, they can be seen writing at the marble-topped of the Cafe de Flore. Already in her thirties. Leduc burns with hero-worship and an obsession to become a celebrated writer herself. When she finds a mentor in none other than Simone de Beauvoir, she is pulled into the center of Parisian literary life — “a beehive gone mad. “In the no-holds-barred style that made her a legend, Leduc paints a vibrant picture of the brilliant minds around her — and the dark passions and insecurities that drove her to write.‘
6. Genet by Edmund White
‘Bastard, thief, prostitute, jailbird, Jean Genet was one of French literature’s sacred monsters. in works from Our Lady of the Flowers to The Screens, he created a scandalous personal mythology while savaging the conventions of his society. His career was a series of calculated shocks marked by feuds, rootlessness, and the embrace of unpopular causes and outcast peoples. Now this most enigmatic of writers has found his ideal biographer in novelist Edmund White, whose eloquent and often poignant chronicle does justice to the unruly narrative of Genet’s life even as it maps the various worlds in which he lived and the perverse landscape of his imagination. ‘
7. Love in a Dark Time: and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature by Colm Toibin
‘Colm Tóibín knows the languages of the outsider, the secret keeper, the gay man or woman. He knows the covert and overt language of homosexuality in literature. In Love in a Dark Time, he also describes the solace of finding like-minded companions through reading. Tóibín examines the life and work of some of the greatest and most influential writers of the past two centuries, figures whose homosexuality remained hidden or oblique for much of their lives, either by choice or necessity. The larger world couldn’t know about their sexuality, but in their private lives, and in the spirit of their work, the laws of desire defined their expression. This is an intimate encounter with Mann, Baldwin, Bishop, and with the contemporary poets Thom Gunn and Mark Doty. Through their work, Tóibín is able to come to terms with his own inner desires — his interest in secret erotic energy, his admiration for courageous figures, and his abiding fascination with sadness and tragedy. Tóibín looks both at writers forced to disguise their true experience on the page and at readers who find solace and sexual identity by reading between the lines.‘
8. Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties by Christopher Isherwood
‘In 1938 the legendary Hogarth Press published the first of Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical writings, Lions and Shadows. The book evokes the atmosphere of Cambridge as Isherwood knew it and describes his life as a tutor, a medical student, and a struggling writer. Above all, Lions and Shadows is a captivating account of a young novelist’s development in the literary culture of 1920s Cambridge and London and of his experiences as he forged lifelong friendships with his peers W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Edward Upward.‘
Which of these books whets your appetite the most? Have you read any of them?