Just over two years ago I submitted my application to City University to study for an MA in Creative Writing. It was a last-minute decision, so I only just made the application deadline. On the train home from work a week or so later, I downloaded the email that invited me for interview. I wanted to tell the man opposite me, that someone thought maybe I could be a writer.
As part of the interview, we had to bring along a summary of the last five books we’d read, and to choose five novels we thought exemplified the kind of thing we wanted to achieve in our own novels. The amount of books wasn’t a problem, but saying something useful and intelligent about them suddenly seemed important. To that end, I opened up a new project in my brand new Scrivener writing software (bought to write my piece for my application) and called it ‘Reviews.’ After that point, I took note of every book I read, whether it was for the first time or after many readings, and wrote a little something about it. After being directed once I joined the course, I included the number of pages, the agent of the writer, the publisher of the book, and notes on the form of the book (close third, unreliable first etc.). I’m so glad I did. Now I have a record of all of the books I’ve read in this time, with at least a few notes from me about it and what I thought of it. What an archive!
Today I handed in my final submission for my Masters. Two years, a completed novel, a huge array of writing, and, as it turns out, an awful lot of books. For an ex-English student and English teacher, being told to read books as a form of research was just fantastic. Turns out I’ve averaged around two books a week, which means I’ve cleared the 100 total by a fair way.
This post (and subsequent, as they won’t all fit!) is an exploration of the books I’ve read, the journeys they accompanied me on, and how they’ve helped me to grow, not only as a writer, but as a human.
The process of writing down just the titles and the authors was moving. As I went down, I remembered the people who gave these books to me or recommended them to me, some whom I haven’t seen for almost two years. The feelings I had when I read them, where I was – from sunning myself in Greece to being hunched over on a long commute as I tried to make enough money as a temp teacher so I could keep writing. The book in itself is an experience, the way they come to us and what we are doing when we read them, not including the actual content hidden between the pages.
What’s also noticeable is the complete lack of response I had to some of these titles (Forgotten Country, Days Between Stations, The Daylight Gate, Lonely Londoners). I couldn’t even remember what they were about, never mind who wrote them. Seeing as a lot of these were first novels that I was reading on my course list, in order to find out how it was done, it’s quite telling. Perhaps writers in the early stages of their craft, are struggling enough to put together a whole piece, and it’s only later you are able to write something truly memorable.
Then there are those that remain solidified in my memory for being novels I couldn’t stand. Politics was the most contested novel on the course, with some thinking it was fantastic, others finding it pretentious, while Sandstorm was denounced by everyone as dreadful. Quilt and Leaving the Atocha Station have stayed with me because of their annoying, pretentious voices, rather than any merit of storytelling. The ‘wild cards’ such as the hilarious Muriel Spark, the timeless Graham Greene and the gripping Daphne Du Maurier were there to provide a break from modern fiction, and to allow me to wallow in a different kind of reading experience for a while.
My highlight are various: The Lighthouse for its dense and beautiful prose, All the Birds, Singing for its deftly woven narratives (one of the first authors on my list that I met, and had a stunned conversation with) Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? for its striking narrative voice and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, as it was a return to an old favourite, re-read because I finally visited Cephallonia and wanted to read DeBernieres’ words while I felt that stark light on my face.
A book takes, roughly, four hours to read. That might be minutes snatched between stations, leisurely time wallowing on the sofa, or sleepily chewed up before turning the light off. However you read, the books we interact with shape us and change us, whether we like them or not. The act of passing on or recommending a books is an exchange of something more than words.
Here’s the full list of the first 25 with a couple of notes. Feel free to dip in!
1. All the Beggars Riding: Lucy Caldwell. Written by a (previous) lecturer on the course. The novel charts a personal self-discovery after the death of a mother. A very believable and emotional central voice.
2. All the Birds, Singing: Evie Wyld. Touching book about single woman who learnt to be tough. Heartbreaking. Interesting narrative structure.
3. Quilt: Nicholas Royle. Sting rays – seven pages of nothing but lists of words, parts where it reads like a prose poem, noticeably trying to play with literary form of both novel and text. Pretentious.
4. Brick Lane: Monica Ali. A novel touched with dark sentiment. Crafted masterfully, we follow the fates of a young Bangladeshi girl taken to England with her arranged husband. The ensuing narrative is broad in encompassing love, race, loss, home, greed and forgiveness. A memorable book.
5. Sandstorm: Henry Shukman. Dreary narrative circling around a man obsessed with the desert. Incredibly repetitive prose and cringeworthy sex scenes.
6. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?: Lorrie Moore. Coming of age novel reflecting on growing up and being a girl. Short, sweet and unassuming.
7. Days Between Stations: Steve Erickson. Starts off as a standard love story of an unfulfilled wife who has an affair. Merges supernatural with reality and has some kind of apocalyptical background which is never overtly mentioned. Understated in places and lucid and powerful descriptions. Disappointing ending.
8. The Lighthouse: Alison Moore. Cleverly crafted characters and structure mirrors the progression of the two protagonists. Frustrating ending with lack of resolution or climax but allows reader to guess what might have happened which does have a certain grace.
9. Leaving the Atocha Station: Ben Lerner. Highly self-conscious voyage of discovery for an American in Madrid. Poetic and faffy.
10. Forgotten Country: Catherine Chung. This novel is arguably more about the influences that have brought the characters to where they are now than examining how it will affect their futures. This effortless interweaving of time is one of the most impressive aspects of the book. Remembered stories and traditional tales enhance the current mood and allow for a more reflective characterisation. An absorbing and poignant read.
11. Love Invents Us: Amy Bloom. From the disturbing first steps into love by a young girl who misinterprets affection from middle-aged men due to her poor diet of love from her parents, to the comfortable love in your forties, this book explores the multiple faces love can display.
12. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice: Evie Wyld. Emotional journey of two generations of the same family (father and son) dealing with how to be a man.
13: Politics: Adam Thirlwell. Highly self-referential novel about the modern love affair. Intriguing, original but not for me!
14: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: John Berednt. Intriguing non-fiction about a small town in the deep South of the USA and the remarkable characters that populate it.
15: Purple Hibiscus: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Bittersweet story looking at the influence of Christianity on African culture. Deftly explored through the naive eyes of a girl who believes her father to be infallible. A study on loss, family, obedience and despair.
16. Petals of Blood: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Exploring the post-colonial Kenya and the journey it went through. Looking at a small group of outsiders, we see a small Kenyan village expand from tribal beginnings to urban sprawl and ponder the impact. A noel of defiance that also questions the possibility of change and right and wrong in an unjust world.
17. The End of the Affair: Graham Greene. Poignant look at an individual’s struggle to come to terms with lost love set in the backdrop of war.
18: Sleepwalking: Julie Myerson. A moving account of a journey through emotional angst. Exploring the impact of absent father figures and the possibility of filial devotion. Ultimately a novel about relationships and the way that unhappy ones can devastate the lives of the children brought into them.
19: The Cleaner at Chartres: Salley Vickers. In the beautiful backdrop of Notre Dame, the reader is shown a slice of French culture through restrained eyes. A myriad of carefully woven characters engage us emotionally and leave us rooting for innocence and freedom. The descriptions are sumptuous and the characterisation and plot deft.
20: The Daylight Gate: Jeanette Winterson. Stuff about witches.
21: Lonely Londoners: Samuel Selvon. Written in dialect, explores the experience of West Indies immigrants in the UK. Range of experiences and reactions to British culture. Beautiful prose poem in the middle exploring the beauty and adventure they find in this country.
22: Cold Comfort Farm: Muriel Spark. Hilarious and clever. Previous review here.
23: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin: Louis De Bernieres. Wonderful. Previous review here.
24: God’s Own Country: Ross Raisin. Story of a slightly maladjusted Yorkshire boy who spends his days working on the farm and in his own head. Impressive internal monologue and capturing of the local dialect. Unusual reported speech (avoids he said). Creates impressive empathy with what on balance is a rather unhinged character but who you end up rooting for.
25: Jamaica Inn: Daphne Du Maurier. Solid homage to the traditional gothic novel through the eerie Inn which reinstates a fear of piracy and ghostly figures. The bleak moors provide a wonderful backdrop for a chilling and haunting narrative.