Happy New Year!
First post of 2019, the best books of 2018. Let’s get cracking.
The Tombs of Atuan
I had been intrigued by Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books and I managed to pick up the first four from my favourite book-swap. When she died, I was very keen to try out the series.
While this is the stand-in for the series as a whole, my favourite of the four books was ‘The Tombs of Atuan’.
I had a problem with the first book as I found the whole, wide world of Earthsea felt made up. Focussing this book on the very small location of ‘The Place’, a temple complex in the island of Atuan grounded the book far more for me than the travels of earlier.
I preferred the character of Tenar, protagonist of this book, to that of Ged, protagonist of the last. Tenar wasn’t a stupendously gifted, arrogantly independent young character who needed to learn about her own dark sides and weaknesses. She was a person trapped, told from a young age that her she was not her own self but the continuation of one person’s rebirth and that her soul had been eaten by the Nameless Gods. Whereas Ged’s story was about confronting, claiming and overcoming his ego - Tenar’s was about finding and maintaining a sense of self though all the world denies it. I found this a far more interesting psycho-social drama.
I also believed in the closed in world of the tombs far more than the broader sweep of the first book. Which is not to say it’s realistic as such - but there was more weight to everything. It reminded me of Gormenghast, where the long, heavy drudge of tradition overcame the vitality and life which it fed on. It I’ve seen this, I’ve lived in Coventry.
I also preferred Ged in this. He’s older, wiser and (most importantly) we see him through Tenar’s eyes. Having spent a book with him, we know there are more angsty things going on in his mind but he comes across as someone with experience, knowledge and confidence in his outcome. I even retrospectively liked him more in ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’.
Though this should be read in conjunction with the other books, this was certainly the highlight for me.
I’ve talked in length about ‘Don Quixote’. It may seem striking that I deemed three other books better. That doesn’t mean the following books are necessarily better, only that they connected closer with me.If this were a list of the ten most objectively great books, it would probably look very different. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy ‘Don Quixote’. I had a wonderful time with this book, genuinely laughed out loud a few times and felt a little teary at others. It’s a wonder that a novel so early in the form’s history can still be so touching.
For anyone wishing to read this book, I recommend the modern Edith Grossman translation. I definitely reading both it and it’s sequel, as the second book probably stands as one of the all time great sequels, both complimenting and challenging the original work.
Of course William Harrison Ainsworth would appear somewhere on this list, he is one of my new favourite authors. I read two of his this year, ‘Jack Sheppard’ and ‘Auriol: or The Elixir of Life’. The latter was a crazy, peculiar adventure but unfinished and, it felt, a little rushed. ‘Jack Sheppard’ was Ainsworth in his golden period, outselling ‘Oliver Twist’ and giving Dickens a few ideas for the future.
What makes it so enjoyable is the improbably incident and the wonderfully pantomime-esque villainy of Jonathan Wild. I spoke about the book here if you wish to find out more.
In a couple of weeks I am going to post a review of ‘Confessions of the Fox’, a very recent take on the Jack Sheppard story that casts him as a trans man (and is really very good.)
The Hopkins Manuscript
Standing for a long time as my favourite book of the year, I’m not sure if ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ is a really, really great book or if it just happens to be a book I really, really like.
I would sum this book up by describing it as ‘Mr Pooter verses the apocalypse’, it’s a glorious tightrope walk which hovers over narrow-minded absurdity but it manages not to fall into it by surprisingly astute psychological understanding.
Mr Hopkins is a small, fussy man, full of his own self-importance. His big interests are poultry breeding and discussing lunar science in a smart club. Having accidentally promised to pay for an observatory for the Lunar club, he is justifiably worried when called to an emergency meeting of the club. So worried is he about this financial observation, that he is relieved when told that the moon is going to crash into the earth. When this sinks in, his main observation is that not as many cream eclairs have been eaten as usual, because that’s the kind of cake you can only eat with a calm and steady hand.
The members of the club have been pledged to secrecy about the approaching collision, so that governments can make preparations to deal with panic. Although he does occasionally think about the awfulness of apocalypse, he mainly wonders around feeling smug that he has a really great secret, and feels huge urge to tell everyone. The introduction describes Hopkins as irritating but I find something endearing in his clinging to the rules of the poultry society (and buying the vicar a book on poultry ‘to make him more interesting’) just as the world is ending. As he says, the end of the world is too big to apply ‘normal common sense’.
Eventually, the rest of the world find out about the impending disaster and Hopkins’ main feeling is disappointment that people aren’t as impressed with him as he hoped. This disappointment comes out in bitchy arguments about the quality of snowdrops in the garden.
The government sets towns and villages the challenge of creating ‘moon-proof’ bunkers, mainly as something to keep people busy but also on the outside chance that they might work. Hopkins begins to join in and enjoys the camaraderie. That said, he daren’t let anyone call him by his first name, just in case the moon didn’t crash and they wouldn’t call him sir afterwards.
When the moon eventually crashes, most of the village go in the moon-bunker but Hopkins stays in his house. It’s evocatively described, strange and psychedelic. The rush of the moon that brings a dusty whirlwind and even the Atlantic Ocean spreading out into the Hampshire valleys. He emerges and is (mostly) a new man. The need to rebuild the world gives Hopkins more to live for, he even fulfils his dreams and becomes an important man.
These are my favourite chapters, I love the feeling of rebuilding a new world from the ashes of the new. Hopkins is so into this new egalitarian mood that he can talk to a plumber ‘as if he was an equal’. Of course, all things end and this period of new growth is crushed by politics. I wasn’t surprised, the author was a WWI veteran writing in 1939 - what else could it be.
This book is historically interesting in seeing how a man in 1939 imagines how Britain will bear under a cataclysm. He imagines London not to have strong enough communal ties but that the countryside will be able to keep going - he was to be proved wrong by London’s ‘blitz spirit’, which despite a massive rise in crime stands in the city’s memory as being the time of greatest community.
Other than that, the book is funny, full of excitement, mystery and the intricacies of poultry-fancying.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They
A charity shop find, I picked up the book beacuse I’d heard the title before and found it funny. It’s not funny at all. The phrase, far from being a comic fear of strangers as I thought (along the lines of, ‘these people are odd, they shoot horses, don’t they?’) it was a plea for euthanisia.
I took the book home and, as I was putting it on the shelf I started reading the first chapter. I had to force myself to put it down and go to bed. Throughout the day at work I had snuck sneaky glances at it, ignoring friends during my break - managing to read about 30 pages throughout the day. As work ended I took it to the cafe in the park, ordered a halloumi wrap and a can of elderflower before sitting in the sun to read.
I devoured the wrap voraciously but I devoured the book more. When I reached the end, I put the book back in my bag, dazed after an emotional ride. I looked at my watch. I’d only been in the park an hour and a half.
So, a short book, but one as satisfying as one much longer. The central concept of the marathon dance was something I had heard of but I’d never really considered the full horror. Months locked in a dancehall without proper sleep, listening to constant music, seeing the same people and being on show the whole time. When the contest added the truly cruel twist of the derby, I was reaching ‘Handmaiden’s Tale’ level of appalled fascination.
It’s a wonderfully structured little book. Technically, the whole thing only lasts the time the judge can pass sentence on poor Robert, the rest of it consists of flashbacks and reflections of the events that have led him to this sentencing.
Another excellent idea in the book is to give narrating duties to Robert. He is imaginative in quite a childish, wish-fulfilling way, he is naive, thinks the best of people and he is an unshakeable optimist. Not only does this make him the perfect foil to bitter, nihilistic Gloria, it makes him the perfect describer of the rank, seedy and exploitative world of the marathon dance.
From using six ‘lovely’s to describe a sunset because his vocabulary isn’t big enough, to his insistence that his lucky moment may arrive any moment - he is the perfect person to tell such a gloomy story. Firstly, because it creates a distance between the reader and the gloom, secondly because this distance develops into a strange tension where the reader is aware of far more than the character, and thirdly, because his tone becomes at complete odds to the events, making the whole thing either ironically tragic or tragically ironic.
I completely recommend this book to pretty much anyone, it’s an easy read, an engrossing read and an unforgettable one.
Over the course of the year, I read a great many great books and if you want a peek I have a listchallenge here.
Next week if a video comparison of ‘The Favourite’ and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s play ‘Queen Anne’ to see how they both handled the story of Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill.
Till then, all yours