I used to look for patterns in the books I read, as though each book was itself a chapter in another book, one that would tell the story of the year. But honestly, who would make up the story of last year? Not the news, but my own story, where I had my second son and lost my mother to cancer in the same month.
That being the story — less an arc and more a downpour, less a journey and more an explosion, less a beginning/middle/end and more a big bang and black hole — the books ought to reflect things like faith and fatherhood, or grief and growth. There’s a little bit of that, because there’s a little bit of that in so many stories, but 2018’s reading was really just a jumble of fiction and non-fiction, and I am not sure there is any great lesson in it.
“Things just go on. Lot of life is like that. I look back over fifty years of life and I wonder where the years went… a man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands.” The wisest book was Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry. I found myself copying a lot of passages from it. It’s the story of a couple of American soldiers in the 1800s, fighting in the American Indian Wars and then the Civil War. It takes something you know happened, and moves it into the realms of great, foundational truth. It’s written in the first person, in a vernacular, close-to-speech way, and though the book is about two soldiers in love with each other, it often broadens out its scope to be about all soldiers:
“We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars. We aint saying no laws in Washington. We aint walking on yon great lawns. Storms kill us, and battles, and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind… But if God was trying to make an excuse for us He might point at that strange love between us. Like when you fumbling about in the darkness and you light a lamp and the light come up and rescue things. Objects in a room and the face of a man who seems a dug up treasure to you. John Cole. Seems a food. Bread of earth. The lamplight touching his eyes and another light answering.”
The inverse of Days Without End was Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. Just as Barry takes a specific experience and invests it with wise, general grace, Wilson grabs the two thousand year old world of Ancient Greece and brings it as close to today as is possible. You can almost feel its breath on your neck. The introductory essay is almost worth the price of admission alone, a masterclass in making a whole world feel present. This Odyssey itself is linguistically modern, clear and shorn of embellishments — and so what remains is incredibly elemental: blood, tears, beauty and the intense sadness of the passage of time. It feels so real, and so strange. At times you cannot believe people lived like that, and felt those things — Odysseus’ pitiless killing of the suitors is heart-rending — but at other times, it’s the paucity of 21st century life that seems thin and fictional, and Homer’s world which seems truly human. It’s you, the reader, who are an insubstantial creature of imagination, and Odysseus and Penelope who are really living and breathing.
I’ve written before about the Odyssey’s hold on me and it still has that. There is probably no finer moment in literature than Odysseus coming face to face with his mother in the underworld.
People talk about working through grief, about dealing with it and wrestling with it, but sometimes grief comes to you as just a single moment, like a storm that’s just one thunderclap — one great bang, in and out, over and done.
The Odyssey is a book about the aftermath of war, and so was Alan Hollinghurst’s newest one, The Sparsholt Affair. A series of love stories that span fifty or sixty years, moving from WW2 to the iPhone, and in particular, the total transformation in this period of how society and gay love see each other. In the background, there’s a scandal, and in the foreground, a son learning about himself and his father. Hollinghurst grants the characters the peaceful magic real life denies most of us: being able to see the skeins of your whole life and to reach back to all the people who ever mattered. It’s beautiful but too long and too lacking in a real core — there’s a drift instead of a drive and the feelings are often smoke not flame, faces in the mirror, not right in front of you.
I read two more volumes of Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa, a graphic novel autobiography of a life shaped by the author’s service in the Imperial Japanese Army in World War 2. Both Volume 2 and 3 are terrific, with a strong sense of drama, terror and beauty in the way the huge naval clashes are rendered, contrasting with the surreal melancholy of Ratman and the author’s own life as a foot soldier in the jungle.
I read another Raymond Chandler — The High Window — a classic that couldn’t be more sure of itself.You wonder why, when everything is as you expect — the chrome cars, the cigarettes, the dames, the wisecracking bartenders — it is still so compelling. The answer I suppose is that this is where it was all invented, or if not entirely invented, then perfected.
The non fiction books I read were mostly easier companions than the novels. I enjoyed Charlotte Higgins’ BBC history, This New Noise — written in the run up to the current license fee settlement in 2016, so on the present state of things it’s a little dated, but it’s excellent on the foundation of the BBC and the creation of its culture. Until I read it, I don’t think I realised how influential its first days still are. Some great quotes in there too: “the BBC is an idea. You either believe in it or you don’t.”
The full list:
- Me Talk Pretty One Day — David Sedaris
- Days without End — Sebastian Barry
- The Argonauts — Maggie Nelson
- Footsteps — Rich Bradwell
- Less — Andrew Sean Greer
- The Dark Forest — Liu Cixin
- Hit Refresh — Satya Nadella
- Laika — Nick Abadzis
- The Driver — Alexander Roy
- Showa 1944–1953 — Shigeru Mizuki
- The Odyssey — Emily Wilson
- Showa 1939–1944 — Shigeru Mizuki
- Measure What Matters — John Doerr
- Radical Candor — Kim Scott
- Dawn of the New Everything — Jaron Lanier
- Pachinko — Lee Min Jin
- Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces — Michael Chabon
- The Three Body Problem — Liu Cixin
- Dept of Speculation — Jenny Offill
- In Pursuit of Spring — Edward Thomas
- Fall Out — Tim Shipman
- Set the Boy Free — Johnny Marr
- The Sparsholt Affair — Alan Hollinghurst
- The High Window — Raymond Chandler
- Radical Focus — Christina Wodtke
- This New Noise — Charlotte Higgins
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers — Katherine Boo