I’ve been making a bit more of an effort with my reading recently – sure, I still indulge in the odd Campion or Agatha Christie revisit, but I’ve been forcing myself to read new fiction and non-fiction by contemporary writers which ordinarily I wouldn’t bother with because I have lazy literary tastes.
I guess my argument would be that there’s enough ugliness in the real world, why would I want to encounter more of it on the printed page, so I tend to stick with cosy domestic tales and nice old fashioned murder mysteries, where everything is always tied up neatly by the last page and the baddies get their comeuppance.
But in the spirit of a new term (surely I can’t be the only one who is hardwired at this time of year to feel like the summer ‘holidays’ are coming to an end and it’s time to start getting your smart stationary and new shoes ready?) I have assembled a bit of an autumn reading list.
Some of these I’ve just finished reading, one I’m currently halfway through and two I have yet to start.
The Wicked Pavilion, Dawn Powell
The Cafe Julien is a legendary New York institution that is tucked away in a corner of the city that attracts artists, writers, drifters, dreamers and those who just want to escape themselves for a night. I can’t say I particularly ‘enjoyed’ this novel, and I fear most of the humour was lost on me (it’s described as ‘mercilessly funny’ in its blurb, but that passed me by), but it does give a fascinating glimpse into a very specific section of mid-century Manhattan society which has a certain gritty glamour. If you like Jean Rhys' down at heel heroines, you'll probably enjoy this.
What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt
I was given this for my birthday in June and warned that I “probably wouldn’t like it!” (my friends know how cosily I keep in my literary comfort zone). But surprisingly I did find it a really good read. Siri Hustvedt is one of the most confident writers I know – she makes an observation about the human condition, or describes a painting or a plate of food – and you, the reader, accept her point of view unquestioningly. The intricacies of several different, intertwined relationships – husbands and wives, friends, parents and children – are depicted with delicacy and sympathy in this story, which has undercurrents of menace flickering throughout.
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
I’ve almost finished reading this astonishing debut novel and it’s fantastic. It tells the story of Agnes, a woman who has been condemned to death in Iceland in 1829 for murdering her lover. She is placed with a farming family while waiting for the date of her execution and starts to tell the story of her life to them and a priest who has been sent to save her soul. As her tale unfolds, they begin to realise that all is not as it first appeared. The descriptions of the bleak, beautiful Icelandic landscape and the characterisation are bewitching. This is a haunting novel that you won’t be able to put down – a real bus-stop-misser.
Flappers; Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, Judith Mackrell
I am very excited to start Flappers because Judith Mackrell is the guest speaker at the next Pamflet salon and will be reading from this very same book! I suppose in a way it’s the parallel text to Singled Out, which told the story of the women who were left unmarried after the First World War killed off an entire generation of young men.
The young women who came of age in the 1920s faced a very different future to their pre-war predecessors and Flappers tells the story of six individuals who grabbed every opportunity that the new landscape afforded them – with mixed results. Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka are the boundary-smashing wild spirits who defined ‘Generation F’ and I can’t wait to plunge into these pages to find out more about their lives.
The Godless Boys, Naomi Wood
I have absolutely no idea what to expect from this novel, in which England is reimagined as a place where the Church controls the country and all non-believers have been exiled to a remote island. This is another debut, from a 27 year old author (am suppressing feelings of jealousy and inadequacy as I type) and with its dystopian themes will be taking me into a totally new literary arena. I’m excited, and a bit scared, which I guess is how good literature is meant to make you feel.
Have you got any books on your to-read list? Am I the only one who’s feeling excited about the ‘new term’ and is totally over summer right now? Who’s buying new stationary for no good reason?!