My childhood was littered with the beginnings of stories. I wrote them in exercise books from Woolworths – red shiny cover and useful information on the back (longest rivers, highest mountains, times tables, how many perches to a chain: all good vital stuff). None of them got past the first chapter. There were newspapers too, that hit the buffers of realisation that nothing much happens when you are ten. I’m not sure that the first sustained piece of writing that I ever achieved wasn’t my doctoral thesis; on, should you care, madhouses on the early modern stage (yes, I knew you’d be gripped). So it is with enormous pleasure that I bring you Week 53 of the Northern Reader blog, because keen mathematicians among you will have spotted that this means that I kept this going for a whole year. As I launch relentlessly into Year Two, I thought this felt like a good moment to consider some books of, about or for the year.
For good titles alone, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously would make it onto this week’s shelf. As it happens, they are both, in their very different ways, cracking good reads and to be recommended. The luminous Ms Didion has always been the lodestar of what makes The New York Review of Books great: I am not convinced she could write a lazy sentence even if her life depended on it. The Year of Magical Thinking might well stand for ever as the best, most clear-sighted and therefore most poignant testament to the loss of one’s beloved. Let me urge you also to read the collection of her work, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, not least because the title makes it onto the infinitesimally small list of sayings I would seriously consider as a a tattoo (see Week 5 for the others if you are fleetingly interested). The Year of Living Dangerously is an absorbing tale set in Indonesia in turbulent times, and as good a political novel as you will find (now there’s a challenge for another week).
During this NorthernReader year, numerous book prizes have come and gone. Eleanor Catton won the ManBooker with The Luminaries, proving me as inept at picking literary winners as I am at horses (see Week 4 for that one), and Kate Atkinson, hurray hurray, won the Costa Prize with Life After Life, which is totally wonderful (I realise that that might not strike everyone as the most helpful review ever written, but, you see, I want you to go and read it for yourself, not have me do it for you. I did that for long enough as a university lecturer and very tiring it was, politely maintaining the pretence that the poppets had bothered to read the texts). You may or may not care to know that other prizes have been awarded to various probably utterly gripping books at the Sports Book Awards, the Specsavers Biography of the Year (sic) and –and I love the sound of this one, for reasons too obvious to go into – the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. I am hoping rather hard that (a) the winner comes away from a great evening clutching his or her choice of the stylishly bound black-and-white Everyman Library in its current incarnation, ditto of the Wodehouse canon and a very large bottle of champagne, and (b) that I win this one some day. Especially if (a) turns out to be true.
Annuals are by definition a yearly event, and many a Christmas was marked in childhood by Rupert. Such is the glitter that Christmas gives to everything that I was many years into adult life before I was prepared to admit, even to myself, that, goodness me, that is one dull little bear. Now my favourite sort of yearly publication – not being the sort of person in whom either Wisden or Old Moore’s Almanac finds a ready market – is the bulb and seed catalogue: free entry to the garden of your dreams. Bloms Bulbs, Seeds of Distinction and David Austin are the stars of this particular haul. A girl can dream, and dark November skies will call for teatimes by the fire with a piece of cake, a pile of catalogues, a marker pen and the ability to ignore the staggering cost of little shrivelled bulbs. Oh, go on, let’s have Deborah Moggach’s terrific Tulip Fever to remind us how these things can get out of hand.
And what books am I reading as I swing into my second year as a weekly blogger? Two fabulous ones, as it happens. One is Sarah Stovell’s completely gripping The Night Flower. I wanted to like this book because I have met the author, who is lovely and local; and boy, The Night Flower does not disappoint. The characters are brought compellingly, vividly and utterly believably to life, and I am staying awake into the small hours to find out what happens next. I’m not sure I can recommend it highly enough. My other is Adam Nicolson’s thought-provoking and absorbing contemplation of Homer, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters. I would willingly read Nicolson’s shopping lists, as anything from him is guaranteed to be wonderfully written (if you haven’t already read it, add Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History to the first draft of your letter to Santa). Add to that the fact that in The Mighty Dead he is championing the theory that The Iliad and The Odyssey are jaw-droppingly old examples of our needs to tell stories about who we are and where we came from, and I for one am hooked. Oh look, we’re back to Joan Didion that We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.
We humans have called ourselves many things in our attempts to see who we are and how we stand out in a multi-species crowd. Homo Faber – man the maker – as a unique distinguisher got blown out of the water when we noticed the amazingly deft things crows can do with bits of stick. Homo Sapiens seems a bit rich: Gaza, anyone? Syria? Maybe we are on more stable ground with Homo Fabulator. We are the story-telling animal. Never let anyone tell you that what we do, reading stories, telling tales, writing, is anything less than essential.