Archive for ‘reading’

December 30, 2014

top books of 2014

book_concretopiaProbably my favourite book this year was Concretopia by John Grindrod. Disclosure: I used to freelance for this publisher and I know John Grindrod; he worked on the Answer Me This! book way back when. Rather embarrassingly, I fainted at his book launch, because I get all Beatlemaniac over the post-war rebuilding of Britain*. Well, not quite, but it’s a very unusual prism through which to examine a slice of 20th century history. And it’s lovely to read someone writing affectionately about architecture that is usually the object of scorn or derision. Well done John Grindrod; you have really opened my eyes to lots of structures hiding in plain sight.

A recurring theme in Concretopia is the practical demands of reality clashing with the idealism of architects. One of the more uncompromising, Alison Smithson, also appears in Rachel Cooke‘s Her Brilliant Career, ten mini biographies of pioneering women in the 1950s.

Also on the mini biography/20th century shelf was The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing. She has a brilliant knack for combining literary biography, travelogue, history, and searching her own soul, as in her debut To The River. (Disclosure, I know Laing too; years ago, she was my editor on books section of the Observer, and when she was let go from there, she went off and became a brilliant author instead.) Her next book is about loneliness; and as somebody who spends most of their time alone, I can’t wait to read it.

Patricia Volk made this list in 2013 for her exquisite biography of Schiaparelli alongside her own mother, The Art of Being A Woman. This year, I read Stuffed, her memoir of her childhood in New York where her parents ran a bustling restaurant, and again it was a perfectly turned piece of work: funny, sad, meticulous, not a word wasted.

New York restaurants turned out to be an unexpected theme of my book consumption this year. Not as beautifully written as Volk, but still entertaining, were Anthony Bourdain‘s No Reservations and A Cook’s Tour, and Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, her memoir of her years as the New York Times’s restaurant critic. This job seems to involve eating foie gras every day (seriously, SO MUCH foie gras) and being taken so seriously that she needed to create a range of disguises and fully rounded clandestine identities in order to visit restaurants undetected. I wonder whether any newspaper still has the budget for that kind of chicanery…

I was familiar with David Sedaris from This American Life, but hadn’t actually read any of his work until Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. I wasn’t so keen on the handful of fictional pieces in the collection, but loved the wry melancholy of the essays, small moments zoomed into so closely, they become significant. And I have to hand it to him for taking it upon himself to clean up the roadsides of Sussex.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf was a real surprise. Backderf went to high school with Dahmer, who began his serial killing two weeks after they graduated; he and his friends had a Dahmer Fan Club, goading their socially awkward, heavy-drinking friend to do ridiculous things for their amusement. The author isn’t condoning the murders, but trying to understand what propelled a human he knew towards monstrous acts.

And finally, for all of you Pre-Teen Sensations out there: I also reread Judy Blume’s Forever for the first time since I was about 11, and, my god, SO MUCH CRINGE. I’m so relieved never to have had a boyfriend like Michael! Here’s a fact that will gross you out: Judy Blume’s dad was named Ralph. Think on that.

* Not really, I had donated blood that day during the tail end of being pretty ill AND moving every single item of furniture in my flat four times so they could repaint and replace the carpet. I’ve never regretted my book collection more.

Top books of 2013, 2012 and 2011

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December 31, 2013

top books of 2013


Disclosure: some of these books I read for work, but they only make it into the list on merit, not because I was paid to read them or received them for free.*

Sometimes, in the course of my work as a book reviewer, I’m asked to review reprints of classics. On the one hand, this is a fantastic job because the books are almost always really good (they don’t bother reprinting a 70-year-old stinker). On the other, what does Nabokov care about my opinions of his work, huh? Nonetheless, I hope that promising youngster Edith Wharton is glad that I thought her House of Mirth was bloody brilliant! Look out for more from her in the futurepast!

Seriously, shame on me for not having read House of Mirth before. It’s a big old class/gender/financial circumstances sucker-punch, in which every word counts; imagine a Henry James novel if only Henry James had been inclined to keep it snappy and not plump for 300-word sentences.

Next in the parade of novels set in New York: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, which follows five fresh-faced young women working for a NYC publishing house in the 1950s as – SPOILER! – they variously fuck up their lives. It’s a bit like a soapier, less drug-fuelled Valley of the Dolls, and if you haven’t read that, you’re missing the greatest trashy novel of the twentieth century.

Still in New York, but non-fiction this time: The Art of Being a Woman by Patricia Volk, intertwined biographies of the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the author’s mother Audrey. The women have little in common, because the conservatively immaculate Audrey would never have taken any the risks that characterised the avant garde Schiaparelli, but both are fascinating: Schiap because she’s Schiap; Audrey because she demonstrates the incredible effort and upkeep it took to be a Joan Holloway, before the late 60s ripped off women’s foundation garments and set fire to their matching hats, gloves and handbags. An utterly beautiful piece of writing about clothes, childhood and family relationships.

Next up: Murder in the Kitchen by Alice B. Toklas. I collect old and unusual cookery books and I love Penguin’s Great Food series. This book tickled me because a) it reminds me how lucky I am not to live in an era when dishes of food were routinely garnished with minced egg; b) Toklas only ever refers to her romantic partner of nearly four decades by her full name, ‘Gertrude Stein’. Never Gertrude, and certainly not Gertie, or G-dog. Includes recipes for Picasso’s fishy lunch, Red Cross nuns’ hot chocolate, and hash fudge – ‘an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club’, indeed.

More novels: Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, the tale of a teenage Mennonite in Mexico helping a 21st-century film crew capture the decidedly non-21st-century ways of her old order community, from which she has been recently alienated. It’s a terrific bit of first-person narrative, that’s for sure.

Jolly well done to Barbara Comys, who made this list in 2011 and repeats the victory this year with Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. The faux-naive tone of the young heroine marrying a flaky artist and raising two children in bohemian squalor between the world wars makes me think of a character Jo Neary might have written.

There’s more naïveté in Tin Toys by Ursula Holden, a trilogy narrated by three young sisters from that sort of crumbling aristocratic background that is often a very satisfying backdrop for a novel (or the real lives of the Mitfords). Although witty, the book starts with the death of a baby and goes downhill from there. Consider yourself warned.

Finally, a special mention for S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. It’s not the strongest plot or writing, but the book itself is a truly magnificent object, and the concept therein is so ambitious and intriguing I probably need a Venn diagram to explain it properly. Inside the cardboard sleeve entitled S. is a 40s novel Ship of Theseus by enigmatic cult author VM Straka, who inspires obsession to the point of death in his fans. Those include Eric and Jen, who meet in the margins of a library copy of the book and scribble notes to each other, trying to crack the mysteries of Straka’s true identity and final disappearance, and falling in love as they do. Stuffed between the pages are newspaper clippings, maps drawn on napkins, handwritten postcards… Thus there are plenty of distractions from the main narrative, which isn’t quite good enough to make one understand why Straka-fans are SO rabidly devoted to his work, but nonetheless: impressively meta.

Those were the books I most enjoyed this year; what were yours?

*Aside from a few freebies, I bought all these books from Bookseller Crow, independent local bookshop of dreams. I’d rather pay full RRP and support brilliantly curated local enterprises than give less of my money to the dark lords of Amazon or supermarkets, which are scuttling the publishing industry. A bargain is hard to resist, but vote with your money.

Top books of 2012

Top books of 2011

January 2, 2013

top books of 2012

Some for work; some for fun; most not published in 2012, merely read by me in that year.


The Last Party by John Harris. Britpop was the dominant music movement of my mid-teens, and I never got into it at all. This came out ten years ago and even by then Britpop already seemed like a relic, an oxbow lake off the river of popular music. It’s well worth reading just to make yourself feel relieved that the 90s are well behind us, and to giggle at the self-importance of Justine Frischmann, whose musical legacy is, as far as I can tell, the theme to Trigger Happy TV.

How Music Works by David Byrne. It’s uneven, but when it is good, it is very good. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about the mechanics of how music works, eg how the different types of venue influenced the form.
Also I can’t remember the last book I had which had been manufacturered to this standard: thick pages, padded cover, even the Canongate business card had three different coloured layers. I wasn’t aware these things mattered until they did.

The Castrato and His Wife by Helen Berry. Worshipped by society but not accepted. Fetishised by women but forbidden to marry them. Irreversably physically altered as children for a slim chance of musical superstardom. Being a castrato was no picnic, right guys? And as this book demonstrates, it was also considerably more complicated and interesting than just having your nuts removed so you kept singing like Bieber forever.

Mid-20th century fiction about pairs of unhappy sisters:

Thanks, I’ll take two: Easter Parade by Richard Yates, and Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker.

Self-serving memoirs:

The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans. Sure, Evans is a tool, but he’s a very entertaining tool when he’s describing his short sharp rise to Hollywood success followed by the long, bumpy decline. Evans is anxious to set the record straight – most of that was not his fault, OK? When your ego is the size of a planet and it gets bruised, you have a LOT of beef; wealthy, coke-fuelled Hollywood beef is the best beef.

Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir by Cyndi Lauper with Jancee Dunn. Somebody has even more scores to settle than Robert Evans. All the people who over the decades have overridden Lauper, or forced her to ignore her instincts, or are Madonna – up yours! Oh, and by the way, Lady Gaga and all you other outlandish pop stars of now – CYNDI DID IT THIRTY YEARS AGO AND BETTER.
When she’s not moaning, or being amusingly bitchy, Lauper gives a vibrant account of the New York scene in the 70s and 80s, following a rough childhood (and adulthood, frankly). With indomitable spirit throughout, she remains a fresh lunatic even now she’s pushing 60.

Not self-serving not-exactly-memoirs:

It’s Not Me, It’s You! by Jon Richardson. I don’t think many writers could make this work, but Richardson is intelligent, funny and painfully observant enough to do so. The book evolved out of this 2010 Guardian article; it goes into near-molecular detail of a fairly ordinary day, the humdrum providing a backdrop to relentless self-flagellation, epic loneliness and minute obsession.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. I know it’s technically fiction, a ‘thinly veiled’ memoir, but Ephron herself makes it plain how very thin the veil is. The bitter disintegration of a marriage was rarely so wrily depicted.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Shortly before Christmas I visited Savannah, Georgia and this is THE Savannah book so I took it with me. Then I was too embarrassed to read it in public in Savannah because I hate to acknowledge how predictable I am like all the other tourists. Anyway: murder mystery, courtroom drama, drag queens and the history of town planning make an irresistable combination, no wonder everyone went so crazy for this book.

Your suggestions for books I should read this year are very welcome. If you’re looking for more titles, here are my top books of 2011.

December 30, 2011

top books of 2011

Thanks to an English degree followed by several years of book reviewing and editing, over the past decade I completely fell out of the habit of reading for pleasure. Hence my new year’s resolution for 2011 was to read more.

I don’t think I had ever bothered making a new year’s resolution before, but this one worked out rather well for several months, until I started reviewing again and the fun-reading immediately dried up. (Currently all books are stuck in a queue behind one that is so bad I can’t bear to finish it.) Nonetheless, I hope to redouble my efforts in 2012, so please be so kind as to recommend me some good books in the comments and I’ll add them to my reading list.

Of the books that I did read this year, the following were my favourites, and I recommend them without reservation. In no significant order:

How I Escaped My Certain Fate – Stewart Lee
It is very difficult to write well about comedy, still more so to write about your own comedy; yet Stewart Lee succeeds with ingenuity and wisdom, and without disappearing up his own arse. Alongside his dissection of his own oeuvre, he provides a potted history of alternative comedy of the past few decades, plus affectionate/bitchy comment upon various contemporary stand-ups.

Mrs P’s Journey – Sarah Hartley
It seems I enjoyed this far more than the average Amazon user! What’s not to like, haters? The first half reads like a jaunty novel, as the titular Mrs P – Phyllis Pearsall, creator of the London A-Z – is born to histrionic parents who act like dicks fairly consistently until she skips off to live under a bridge in Paris. When she grows up, she takes the unprecedented step of compiling an exhaustive street map of London, which involves her walking every single street then drawing it up by hand. Google Maps make it so easy to take cartography for granted now, but it must have been a major ball-ache in the past. I mean, ‘labour of love’.

Lint – Chris Ware
I don’t have much appetite for graphic novels/comics (choose whichever term angers you least), but I do love Chris Ware. In many other graphicnovelcomics, I find the visual aspect is only illustrating the story, so not telling me much I didn’t already learn from the words and slowing down the book to boot; whereas in books like this, the visuals ingeniously convey the story of a man’s life from conception to death. Depressing, but that goes with the territory.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
I borrowed this from my friend Will, who had read it for his book group and emerged thoroughly perplexed by it. I’m not sure what baffled him so acutely; it’s quite straightforward, although a good deal different to the film. Originally a series of magazine columns in Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1920s, it’s the diary of the gold-digging blonde Lorelei – Marilyn Monroe’s faux-naive character in the film, but rather sharper here – as she seeks a wealthy husband. One thing I learnt from this book is that although I’m generally a massive pedant, I do enjoy a Character Spelling Mistake.

Sisters by a River – Barbara Comyns
More Character Spelling Mistakes here, although not deliberate ones in this fictionalised account of the author’s childhood, in a rambling country house overrun by siblings and rambunctious parents. That’s usually a good set-up for a book, isn’t it? As it proves here, and very charmingly so. Eccentric without trying.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – Winifred Watson
A very sweet, cheering short novel, wherein a series of mistakes propels sad middle-aged spinster Miss Pettigrew into a joyous new Roaring 30s existence. I’ve never been disappointed by any book from Persephone Books, partly because they seem to favour the early-20th century period of literature of which I am very fond, and partly because the volumes are very pretty.

September 16, 2011

(what’re you playing at, Sontag?)

I’m presently reading the 1967 novel Death Kit by Susan Sontag. The protagonist is named Diddy, which is problematic because where I’m supposed to picture a [spoiler!] suicidal and delusional microscope advertiser, I am instead assailed by a man with jewellery for teeth and an inferiority complex that no number of yachts, voluptuous girlfriends and monochromatic birthday parties can disguise.

But that is not my only problem with the book. Perhaps you can solve my problem with the book, which is this*:

I know nothing of Sontag and her oeuvre, so can one of you please offer a decent explanation as to why the word ‘now’ always appears in brackets?

I’m not enjoying the book sufficiently to expend any critical thought whatsoever upon the matter, so unless you can persuade me otherwise, I will have to assume it’s merely some 60s experimental pretentious guff that, like most 60s experimental pretentious guff, has not dated well.

*Although I do have another problem with the book, for it is riddled with dream sequences, which always seem a lazy narrative device. If you want to let me in on the subconscious of a character, write better! IT’S THAT EASY**.

**Of course I know it’s not easy to be a good writer. But it’s clearly too bloody easy to write dream sequences. And as we all know, listening to even our most beloved friends recounting their dreams is boring as hell. Stop taking dreams so seriously, everybody! They’re pretty much the equivalent of your brain flushing itself.

September 6, 2011


I am a fan of old cookbooks. Not for the recipes – I don’t like boiled meat, thanks! – but because they’re such an interesting reflection of the time when they were produced. This was an interesting read on the subject.

Sometimes, though, these dated volumes go TOO FAR.

Take this 1952 edition of Good Housekeeping, for instance.

It opens innocently enough: with some sexism!

This is clearly a book from before the time when St Jamie of Oliver made it OK for men to cook the supper, back in the days when bachelors either ate at their club or died of starvation. Here’s how the Foreword sets the agenda:

“She can’t even boil an egg!” This sweeping condemnation is perhaps true of few women today; but because cookery books sometimes assume that their readers are already familiar with the very simple processes, it can still happen that a young housewife – or a daughter-at-home called upon to produce a meal in time of domestic crisis – finds embarrassing and unexpected gaps in her cookery knowledge.

You know what, though – I’m not embarrassed by some of the gaps in my cookery knowledge, if what I’m supposed to fill them with is THIS:

I can’t even type the name of the recipe, because I think there are laws against it now.

The book says they ‘make excellent individual place cakes at a party’, so do bear it in mind if you find yourself throwing a Pre-Civil Rights Movement themed party for your kids.