I read over one hundred books in 2016 and I must confess I did feel secretly smug. I had written the titles down in a small beautiful little leather-bound notebook. We all take in so much information on a daily basis. I heard about a report somewhere that the entire magazine supplement of the New York Times contains the equivalent volume of information that one person in the medieval period would retain in her or his lifetime. I, like the majority of my friends, rail against the digital onslaught and advocate digital detox – only to then, in complete contrast to my protestations, submerge myself online. Before I know it I am all of a buzz, drowning in the very streams and apps of the social media lagoon I criticise. I think there is a reason why they call it ‘the web’!
On Sunday 18 December, I was working in my blue room writing studio. The space so-called after the lyrics from one of my favourite Bowie tunes,
Blue, blue, electric blue,
That’s the colour of my room,
Where I will live.
It is also a nod to my heroine, Frida Kahlo, who lived in a Blue House. I hand-write all my manuscripts and keep all drafts and notebooks in wooden trunks in the studio. That morning was a particularly productive one. I lit a yellow candle for positivity as I wrote, carefully placing it in a window box filled with mud. I had had five fruitful hours, so decided to stop for lunch, eagerly anticipating the afternoon winter walk to Reynolds Park. The yellow candle was out, or so I thought!
A few moments later I walked back into the room to find my desk engulfed in yellow. Madame Le Fire had decided to neck my desk (‘neck’ is Liverpudlian slang for French kiss). However, this was no simple kiss but a full ravaging. I peeled off my dressing gown and threw it over the burning scandal. Although the blaze stopped licking at the papers, the next attack was to smother the room in its entirety with a choking black smoke. We called the fire brigade immediately, who were there in a moment. The studio was completely engulfed in blinding fog. Treeview – my flat – smoked out. Standing outside looking up at the third floor flat, I looked at the bedroom windows aghast. The pernicious black vapour seeped out. It was hard to identify whether it was solely fumes from the studio or whether the intimate flames had turned into a full on orgy.
Thankfully, it was only an intimate occasion, heavy petting; the damage was minimal and needed cosmetic assistance only. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have disrespected a tiny flame in a candle? I kept thinking of the baker who accidentally started the Great Fire of London. Thankfully, our fire service has since advanced…
So readers, after losing my pride, nearly my home and a couple of notebooks from last year, I cannot provide as I have previously the impressive list that carefully registered each time I finished a book. However, I can say some were good, some bad, but these are the seven that heavily impressed themselves on me.
My Number One was actually a graphic novel, Hubert by Ben Gijsemans. One of the most bewitching tales I have encountered. Its focus is on Hubert, a solitary outsider, his life defined by going to museums and galleries. He is socially inept and the only thing he can talk about with the people he rarely interacts with is art. His landlady is a bit of a ‘frisky biscuit’ and she tries desperately to seduce him but alas, her drunken paradise is not for him. He meticulously photographs the pictures of beautiful ladies in the galleries he visits to reproduce as copies in his home. One woman who lives opposite fascinates him. He proves to be a solitary voyeur and this obsession highlights his lonely existence. The novel is sympathetic, compassionate and touching. Hubert is a representation of modern man, not sure of his place in the world and how he fits into the society he inhabits. A glittering debut, published by Jonathon Cape.
I was a little worried about reading Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly, for I have admired this ladies design and work for a long time, but controversy surrounding her unpaid internships and the logo being embraced by scallies, just another brand, led me to question her morals. However, this fascinating insight into this fashion creative focused on her work ethic and tenacity. She is a grafter and a consummate seamstress. The bumpy ride through PUNK is detailed in all its excess and it was all the more enjoyable viewed from the sanctity of my reading chair.
Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton was gin-soaked and bleak. We all have that one friend who drinks like a fish and at times you want to throw a pint of stale bitter over her or him. This is exactly how I felt towards the protagonist Bone in this dark piece. Like Orwell’s ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’, the narrative offers a bygone era, one of last orders at the bar and tea shops. The ragamuffins in the story are grotesque, conniving and vulgar. The novel is like a Francis Bacon painting, hideous yet compelling to view.
Room by Emma Donoghue was emotionally draining. One room, a shed, one boy and his mother held captive by a fiend who is called, ‘Old Nick’, this harrowing work explores the intrinsic bond between mother and child. The silent menace of the captor is ever-present. The narrator is a five-year-old boy and, like Huckleberry Finn, his innocence is touching and unsettling in that it highlights the horrors of the nightmarish reality.
Everybody’s damaged by something.
The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage blew me away. A fine study of two rival brothers and their lives on a ranch in Montana valley. One a sadist who despises weakness, the other a simple but gentle soul. Each chapter begins with a captivating image or a sentiment that grabs the reader and is neatly concluded. The descriptions are cinematic and there is a homoerotic undercurrent that is never blatant.
The boy was poised as delicately as a deer and the eyes as huge, and as Phil turned, he ran as a deer might run, leaping back into the sheltering bush.
A multi-textured work that reminded me of the cult classic ‘Stoner’ in that the beauty lies in the simplicity.
I have always been a fan of books by Ian McEwan. I still recall my reaction to The Cement Garden when I was a teenager. A work that shocked and captivated me. He continues to offer a unique view of the world. Amsterdam is an exquisite piece of fiction, orchestral in how it strikes resonant chords during the storytelling. A beautifully scored composition of a friendship complete with minor notes.
Ken Robinson’s The Element is a book that should be prescribed to everybody to read in school, to ensure each and every one of us captures our passion. He advocates how we should look to find our ‘tribe’, that is people and work that totally energises and excites. There is nothing new here, Confucius did claim,
Choose a job that you love and you will never have to work a day of your life.
Robinson backs up his arguments with real-life case studies. Life is no dress rehearsal, find what you like to do and do it. If you don’t like what you are doing, change. ‘Oh he was in his element,’ a popular saying to describe when somebody is absolutely enjoying every aspect of something they are doing. I personally learnt the hard way, trying to be a square peg fitting into a round hole and that brought a subtle attack of depression and alcoholism. Sometimes you have to lose the plot to find it. I was forced to rethink my life and career, sink or swim? If you nearly drown, you become a much stronger swimmer. I realised writing is what allows me to be in my ‘element’. What is your passion?
In 2017, I will continue to write, read books and I am going to start a new list to note the titles I read. I will continue spending time in the blue room writing studio. Indeed, the fire forced me to deep clean and move things around. It is now STRICTLY a candle free zone, not even yellow ones.
Hopefully the only thing that will generate sparks is my typing.
Another years’ worth of books is available in A year in books 2016 – J. C. Greenway