Probably 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.