Wednesday 1 January 2020

Top 10 Best Books of 2019 (Part One)

Happy New Year!

I always had a superstitious notion as a child that the 2020s were going to be my golden years, I have no idea why I decided this, I think I just liked the sound of the date. The 2000s and 2010s didn’t quite do it for me so I am hopeful for the next decade.

One thing 2019 did give me was a lot of good reading material. I read some great stuff this year, knocked a few big names off my internal ‘to-read’ list and discovered a few gems. In the next two posts, I shall be looking at my top ten favourites.

If you want to see what I read last year in total, check out my list-challenge here and see how many you have enjoyed.

When I Was Otherwise by Stephen Benatar 

One of my odd little pickups. I was attracted to it because of how it had been written, inspired by a small article in the Guardian newspaper, the story is a fictional answer to ‘how did that happen?’

The book starts with that article, police have broken into a house after fears of neglect to find the rotting remains of an old woman who had been dead for over a year, the recent remains of another old woman and a befuddled old man. They were related, the old man and the recently deceased woman were brother and sister, and the woman who had been dead longer was their sister-in-law.

The book then takes us to the day they moved in together and the party they had to celebrate that move. As the characters reminisce we are taken back to other times the characters had met up and then the book takes us away, drifting back and forward in time, telling parts of their story as we go. It’s like a web or a tapestry, most of it told through conversations and often over food and drink. In particular we follow Daisy, the sister-in-law and she is a fascinating character.

Through snippets scattered throughout the text we learn that she grew up in a family she hated for being too strait-laced, became a nurse at the front in WWI, married a man with TB who onlu lasted a couple of years, carried on nursing in Britain during the Blitz, moved into a friend’s house after hers was bombed, nursed the friend through her final years and was left the house, sold the house and moved into little bedsits before finally moving in with her husbands relatives. We find out that she hated her mother-in-law (and has a problem with authority and conformity generally) and that she was kept at a distance from much of the family.

As a person, she is both scathing and kind, manipulative and painfully honest, confident and secretly very insecure. This insecurity most often shows in her habit of pushing people away with rude jokes, her need to be on top and her painful, painful passive aggression. She is always running down her looks, apologising for being a burden and trying to prod people into giving her compliments. My favourite was this; “Will somebody tell me please if I’ve received a compliment? It doesn’t happen often and I’d like to know.”

Daisy also cadges drinks (coffee, tea, sherry, whisky - anything liquid), and carefully rationalises all her selfish acts with selfless reasoning. However, there is a glimpse of her good sides. She does care for those she loves, encouraging her husband to stand up to his tyrannical mother and nursing her best friend for years. She’s interesting because she is so contradictory but we get the feeling if a few more people accepted her, she may have turned out much better.

Daisy and the sister-in-law, Marsha, also have an interesting relationship. Scared by her forthrightness, the two hadn’t met up much but when Daisy comes to dinner they almost get on. What’s more Daisy gets on much better with Marsha’s husband, Andrew, than she does. Marsha and Andrew have been married a year or so and although he finds her sweet, he is irritated by her sheltered upbringing, her naïveté and her painfully obvious ways of being affectionate. More intrigued by the prickly Daisy, the two meet secretly behind Marsha’s back to have meals and joke about everyone else. The relationship never gets physical though and is later broken off.

When they are elderly and move in together, Marsha takes the role of nagging mum, Dan takes the role of easy-going father and Daisy as rebellious teen (even though she’s the oldest). It would seem the most likely to snap is Daisy but Marsha is not as in control as she seems… It is telling that she rates her greatest accomplishment as snipping the end of her husband’s condoms.
(The brother-in-law, Dan is nice, a bit dopey and doesn’t come into the story all that much.)

I love the way the book is written. The conversations are well-observed and the characters are full and interesting. I also loved how the structure, of little snippets back and forth, lets the reader accumulate detail - I bet it’d be a completely different book on reread. Finally, I really enjoyed how the main characters of the plot are old people - proper old people like the ones that were around when I was little. They eat painfully unappetising food, have a pot of tea at the ready, reminisce about handsome old film stars and constantly break into old songs. Like the old people I remember, they have war stories and stick to their old ways, not adopting new technologies and styles. It’s a funny book, a grim book and a well told one. I really liked it.

Silas Marner by George Eliot

I have never met a person who has enjoyed this book. There were friends of mine forced to read in at GCSE level, others at A-level, even more at university and they all said it was incredibly boring. Even the ten-year-olds reading a child-friendly rewrite said this was an intolerably dull book. I have to say I was intrigued though, the central notion of a strange, outcast man learning to be part of humanity for his love of a little orphan child touched something in me and I was keen to read it.

Now I have, I can only just understand where the claims of boring came from. There is not much intrigue in the book, the mysteries are scant and the characters are generally quite low-key. I can see a younger version of me thinking that this was a book in which very little happened and took quite a long time to do it. As I am now, I found this book to be full of incident and I found it moving and very engaging.

Silas Marner is first introduced as this strange, alien figure, coming into Raveloe from the mysterious and unaccountable world outside. He is ugly, alone and works at a necessary but othering profession which conducts the alchemy of turning yarn into cloth. What’s more, he doesn’t take part in any of the social activities that bind the community together. As a reader we are let into a little more information, we see that he was an enthusiastic, if unthinking member of a dissenting chapel who previously lived a life of faith (even if his understanding of the Anglican expression of it is minimal). We also learn that he was disappointed in life, that his best friend betrayed him, framed him for robbery and stole his affianced. More than this, when he went to the elders of the church for help, they called on God by drawing lots at that ultimately condemned him. Feeling spurned by God and man, his only joy is to sit, weave and count the money he accrues.

There’s also a whole bunch about the squire’s son Godfrey, his love of a girl called Nancy, his secret marriage and his disreputable brother. I have to admit to enjoying when I got to the end of this bits as Godfrey and his brother seemed more for plot purposes and I could never get on with Nancy, she seemed both so stupid and so sure of herself.

I really wanted to get back to Silas, whose life is empty of anything worth having but full enough to keep going. I was drawn in by his relationship to his gold and worried for him when that gold was stolen. This crisis draws him into the local pub where the men’s pipes ‘twitched like antennae’. The description of the local men made them seem ignorant, unable to change but also homely and having Silas have to deal with this society for the first time was a good comedy of awkwardness but also nail-gnawingly embarrassing.

A little later he finds the little girl he names Eppie sitting at his hearth. The toddler was described in ways I think could have been mawkish but I found sweet. I liked the notion of her bounding around under a mop of hair, exploring ladybirds and emerging from a punishment of being closed in a coal cellar with a great joy in the experience. I loved how the book teased Silas out of himself as he has to present more of the world to the little girl. I completely believed in how the growing of the girl encouraged the growing of the man.

I also found the discussions between Silas and Mrs Winthrop developed. Introduced as a busybody at first, she and he gradually meet as equals and discuss notions of child rearing, religion and the way the world is constructed. Neither of them are educated to any real degree, neither have a solid understanding of their religion or a very clear notion of how the world works but they battle it out together to make something that works for them. It reminded me of Crusoe and Friday’s relationship a little and was a very clear account of a growing friendship.

in the much shorter second section, after fifteen years have passed since the first. the various mysterious are resolved and the characters are sorted into their various end-points. The scene between Godfrey (Eppie’s actual father) and Silas was the sort of confrontation which is frequently underwhelming in novels but frequently momentous in real life and it felt the way such a scene really does. Some of the characters overcame their weaknesses and others succumbed to them, each ending up where they should with a satisfying narrative tidiness.

This book celebrates the things that should be celebrated; renewal, community and love. Sometimes it’s good to read something that does that.
I also found the style frequently inventive with a number of subtle and comic touches with a description of a smile that almost matches Irma Prunesqualor’s in ‘Gormenghast’;
   “(Mrs Crakenthorpe) blinked and nodded, amiably intending to smile, but the intention lost itself in small twitchings and noises.” 

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I must admit to being rather ignorant of Elizabeth Gaskell and of ‘Cranford’. I knew they made a couple of TV series of it starring Judie Dench and that it looked a little like their ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ TV series and that one of the jokes in ‘Psychoville’ was about an actor being in Cranford and unable to get a phone signal. I didn’t even remember where or why I picked up my copy, only that it’s a slim hardback with an intriguing first page.

We are informed that there are no gentlemen in Cranford. That all the house owners are women, that they have a perfectly ordered social life and would find men more trouble than they’re worth. The next chapters are about one of these rare male visitors to the town, Captain Brown. He causes a stir in the little place, openly admitting his own poverty (while the women gently skirt over theirs) and disagreeing with the principal arbiter of taste, Miss Jenkyns, the former clergyman’s daughter.

This disagreement was a particular interest of mine as it was about a writer I whole-heartedly adore and one I’m learning to love, Johnson vs Dickens. (Incidentally, ‘Cranford’ was originally published in Dickens’s magazine). Miss Jenkyns is a keen devotee of Johnson, getting children to read her ‘Rambler’ essays even though they don’t often understand them, quoting “many a rolling, three-piled sentence” and insisting that ‘Rasselas’ is a perfect example of “light and agreeable fiction.” 

Personally, I have argued a number of times that ‘Rasselas’ is a lot funnier than it’s reputation suggests and I have often laughed out-loud at a ‘Rambler’ or two, but I am prepared to admit that Dickens (especially in his ‘Pickwick Papers’ guise) must have been a far more accessible work. It’s also interesting that Dickens was a big Johnson fan, an even bigger Goldsmith fan and signed his early work ‘Boz’ in reference to Boswell. Poor old Captain Brown though, in saving a small girl from a railway accident, he is killed and Cranford is all female again.

I was fond of the fierce Miss Jenkyns and I was unsure, when the reader was informed of her death in chapter three, where the book would go next as she seemed to be the main character. This is a good time to look at the structure of the book, a loose assemblage of short stories with a light narrative flow-through - and also a good time to look at the tone. This book is intensely gossipy. The narrator is a former resident and frequent visitor who writes to the reader as a confidant, relaying the stories of our mutual friends. There is frequent use of ‘we’ and as a result, we are quickly drawn into the world.

For a start, it’s clear that ‘Cranford’ isn’t exactly about the people of Cranford. It’s a small town, there are of course men and more than the six or so ladies (ladies, not women) we meet but those ladies believe that they are Cranford and so what is important to them is what is important to the town. They remind me of a school clique (pronounced ‘cleek’ not ‘click’) and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wear pink on Wednesdays. The ladies live lives of pleasant boredom, read little, sew much and have secret fears of watching eyes, people under the bed and ghosts. There are big tragedies, Captain Brown getting run over by a train, the madness in the eye of a mother who has lost multiple children, sickness and death but the tragedies that most affect these ladies are those of social order and respectability.

I did wonder where the book was going to go next now the main character had died but as the book progressed it slowly revealed that the whole thing was about Miss Jenkyns’s timid sister, known as Miss Matty. She’s an unprepossessing hero, indecisive, timid and used to living life in her sister’s shadow but when genuine calamity comes her way she shows a nobility, a strength and a determination that show her true self. When things get bad, her “unselfishness and simple sense of justice, called out the same good qualities in others”. What felt like a lightly pleasant laugh at some slightly out-of-touch old biddies became a hymn to the real strength of a decent person.

- And at the end, our narrator was gifted a large bound volume of Johnson’s work.

The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life by Henry Hitchings

I described this book as perfect, the kind of book that I would have written if I had the chance, so why is it relatively low in this list? I simply found the book too well catered to my taste and feelings to engage with it as fully as I could. It’s still one of the best books of the year for me though.

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

Another book I reviewed on this site. While I question some of the history, the novelising is great, it’s a tense book with rich characters and a fascinating situation. I voted this as the best book that came out this year on Goodreads and I stand by it.

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