Guilty Pleasures – a year or so in books

Another self-indulgent post. Since I don’t have the time for regular blogging, I’m offering a short and eclectic list of my leisure reading this year.

Bookshop of the Year: The picture below is from one of the odder bookshops which I visited last the summer. Squirrelled away in the Southport backstreets, the magic starts at the door where, like the finest of all bookshops, you have to ring a buzzer and be scrutinised by an owner – through murky single-pane glass –  who looks like the villain ‘Mike’ from Breaking Bad.

Despite the alarmingly rickety stairs, and the prospect of dirt-cheap seashells (something for everyone?), the contents proved to be less interesting than the owner. Still, I bought a light-hearted memento to remember our visit. Whilst I was tempted by a watermarked copy of Jackie Collins’ bonk-buster Vendetta (primly dedicated ‘To Carol, from Martin, December 1996’ ), I settled on a small soapstone alligator from the outside shelves. ‘Not Just Any Old Bookshop’.


Book of the yearTraveller of the Century, by Andres Neuman, lovely daffy romance in post-Napoleonic Germany, full of the sounds of Schubert and the whimsical ideas of German idealists.

Other runner-ups:

Americana, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Middle-brow fiction with sharp observation of Nigeria and America. Adichie also captures the urge to hurry home which can seize any long-distance traveller.

Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, by Gordon Young. Published before the Flint water crisis, Young is too easy on authority figures in this part memoir, part investigative journalism. But he’s still good at describing tawdry local politics, the wielding of power, and the difficulties of building communities.

The Motel Life, by Willy Vlautin. Short, melancholy and about the dangerous edge of things: the claustrophobia of big cities, the dangers of familiar places. Reveals more of itself upon re-reading.

A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture, by Alexander Cockburn. One to nibble through. There are journeys through Indiana and across the Northern Plains. There’s plenty of scorn – for Hilary Clinton, for Orwell, for Christopher Hitchens. And it’s full of gossipy scandal.

The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, by Scott Carney. An unlikely read. But a searing revaluation of the roles of altruism and confidentiality in organ donation.

Collected Ghost Stories, by M.R. James. Probably best read at dusk, and by candlelight in a dark panelled room. They are of their time – with creaky vicars awakening malevolent powers in old libraries. And they’re full of jokes at the expense of pompous Oxford dons.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. In much of Dickens there is an indefinable feeling very like the one you can still find on dark afternoons in English cities. Victorian stone is solid, brooding, and yet uplifting. So many shades of human nastiness here and a denunciation of class division.

Packmen, by Alan Bisset. Football with tender reflections on masculinity and queer identity, with Scottish accents and the Manchester cityscape.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. I looked up the definition of party pooper whilst reading Quiet and it said: ‘One who refuses participate with enthusiasm, especially in the recreational activities of a group’. I read this and thought, ‘That’s me!’. When the clock strikes midnight at a party, I’m usually thinking, ‘Hmm… Let me see. I COULD sink several gallons of alcohol or I could try to gang together with other party poopers whose enthusiasm for the evening is waning make my exit.’ (Hint: classic signs are sneakily ordering a soft drink, taking furtive glances at watches, and vague murmurings of ‘having to do some DIY in the morning’). If you’ve ever experienced the pooper dilemma, then Quiet is the book for you.

My Name is Lucy Barton, By Elizabeth Strout. You could start with any of Elizabeth Strout and end up in the same place. Her heroes are mediocre. Religion is respected but comically useless. Disasters, for the most part, resolve into sad and tolerable outcomes. I prefer Olive Kitteridge but this is worth reading.

The Inoffensive:

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. Brilliant creative type almost trashes his life through imposter syndrome and drunken blunders. Lerner’s feverish descriptions of parties and handsome Marxists have their appeal – but it’s not always enough to sustain sympathy or interest.

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. Well, fine. Or quite good. Or, perhaps more dispiritingly, ‘booker-prize-winning’.

Unnatural Causes (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery), by P.D. James. I’m not sure why Adam Dalgliesh took over P.D. James’ career. A published poet/Scotland Yard detective is a stretch of imagination. He sleeks through the book like an expensive cat – I wish P.D. James had written more about other detective, Cordelia Gray.

Your Face in Mine, by Jesse Rowe. Compared to James Baldwin. But whilst Baldwin snarls in the face of empty white liberalism, Your Face in Mine muses on too many political yarns – although there’s good jibes at indie bands and early 90s adolescence.

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. The unsparing bitterness is one of the things which makes Moshfegh’s writing good. But it is strong meat. Don’t expect the eerie melancholy of  her earlier work.

And the not so great:

Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis. The Amis slant on Holocaust memory. Mass murderers are terrible. They’re also tedious to the extreme and think that they’re irresistibly attractive to women.

The Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk. If you’re a ‘blogosphere busybody’, you had better watch out. One of these days, a demonic ‘dispatch’ from a dead ‘sexual sociopath’ could shimmer its way into your email inbox with occult mumbo jumbo and puerile ramblings. Every single person involved in publishing this deserves to be poked with very sharp sticks.

Maestra, by L.S. Hilton. Bury it at a crossroads at midnight with a stake through its heart.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, by Salman Rushdie. There’s perplexing wordplay and colourful characters. But there’s plenty more to irritate in Rushdie’s latest tome.

There were others which I can’t quite remember. These ‘reviews’ were, in some instances, adapted from thoughts jotted down here.


Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (2016)

512actmxncl-_sx318_bo1204203200_I swear, I’m a simple wholesome girl with dreams of a small homestead, sitting with my true love in front of an open fire and sighing with quiet contentment as I imagine an afterlife filled with rewards I’ve earned with my good and decent behaviour.

I’m that dull. But even I’m a Bruce Springsteen fan.

Reading Born to Run is like floating in a pool. He has a warm, assured way of telling stories which reflects on human struggle. I’m conflicted over having read it so speedily since I think I could have savoured it a little more.

The Plot Against America (2004)

Philip Roth wrote  ‘The Plot Against America’ in 2004.  Iplott re-imagines the events of the American mid-century when, instead of Roosevelt winning an unrepeatable third term, flying ace Charles A Lingbergh – a real-life celebrity-cum-political amateur – ascends to the presidency on a wave of populism and antisemitism. 

In typically Rothian mode, the novel remakes history through the eyes of a notional Roth family in Newark, variously and increasingly desperately clinging to the promise that ‘despite the incredible speed with which our status as Americans appeared to be altering, we were still living in a free country’.


My Happy Days in Hell (1962)

My Happy Days inhappy-days-hell Hell (1962), memoir by Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy (1910-2006) tells a life of exile, imprisonment and Maven cocktails of the rum type or the gin type. Luckily Faludy has no type so no need to choose there.

It begins in Paris, after he has fled Hungary. Faludy’s Paris of the late 1930s is almost wholly sunny and hectic. The memoir’s first segment ‘France’ revolves entirely around his wanderings (and those of his other characters) across the city, from nightclub to bar to café to squalid apartments.  Given that Faludy has very little money, it’s amazing how extravagantly he eats and how seldom he travels by Metro.

Silent, cemetery-like Paris before the occupation in which invading Germans slowly appear on the streets is more eerily imagined. Even as Faludy gallops towards the French coast you can’t help but feel that war has been a longed for moment of irresponsibility. Like many, he longs to be carried along in the great stream of events. To just let go and wait to see where he’s washed up, and where.

Also on this journey are a fading nightclub singer and her daughter and George Lorsy, a grand Hungarian intellectual, sponger, pig, and general scapegrace.

The second segment ‘North Africa’, concerns the brief days in Morocco, interesting for the relative openness of Faludy’s same-sex desire. That this mainly appears during his travels in the Maghreb probably explains why it was acceptable to British publishers.

He returns to the suspicion of Hungary’s Communist authorities, the grinding hunger rations, when there is nothing to eat – even for the fortunate – but the foulest offal,  the grey lonely soaking chill of Budapest and the melancholy beauty of Hungary’s rural landscapes.  For long periods, he feels the immediate possibility of total defeat and utter destitution for his country, knowing he is in constant danger of arrest and betrayal.

He ends starved, herded, helpless in a forced labour camp as part of a number of the captives who are trundled eastwards in cattle trucks, that took more doomed cargo along a similar route only a decade or so before. Some of those aboard knows the track well, and recall these journeys  as the train heaves itself over certain sets of track.

Parts of it are especially chilling, especially when Faludy pours himself a drink on the boat from the United States back to Hungary, knowing he returns to possible death, and the scenes where a Jewish Frenchman collapses in the street before the Portuguese Embassy, then helplessly awaits the mob as the Nazis take over his small town

Religion is disparaged. Communism is too, even more so when Faludy is urged by the austere fanatic Bandi Havas (who much later meets his pitiful end on the floor of a torture chamber in Hungary) to join the Communist Party in Paris.

The closing pages have an especially telling account of the elation and disappointment aroused, in quick succession, by the death of Stalin.  An evocation of an era that ended in pain and failure, but told with the serenity that comes with distance.

Making Faces (1999)

‘Oh. Have you done that… yourself?’ are words often directed at me by f139654-1riends, family and occasionally complete strangers at the bus stop. So I’ll stand up straight away and admit that I cut my own hair.

My daily beauty regime involves little more than Vitamin E moisturiser in a subtle shade of Tippex and some rather uneven black eyeliner. So it’s a real treat to step foot in a place every now and again where professionals trained in the art of hairdressing and skin care can politely suggest that I  should try a) a trim that isn’t done by my own hand with some old nail scissors  and b) an eye-shadow that isn’t ‘blush neutral’ over ‘pale ivory’ for a change.

AND my hairdressers top off their cheap magazine stack with classic beauty books like  Making Faces. A couple of glasses of wine later, and a neat trick with hairspray on a large bath brush, it was almost had me hooked. After a book which recommended two sparkly eyes covered in colours I would NEVER have been bold enough to choose myself I was feeling very girly indeed.

So well done Kevyn Aucoin and Gena Rowlands (wherever they are in the make-up world) and thank you to the lovely Frankie of Architect Hair for  your delightful tact – giving yourself away only by the ever so slight cracking of your voice when you asked, ‘Do you…er…do this at home?’.

Yes, I do, I’m afraid. Yes, I do. And there’s no number of beauty books which can stop that from happening…

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (2009)

There are times when reminiscing is a good thing. Having an arctic roll fthemagiciansor dessert can bring back glorious memories of playing Ski Sunday down the stairs on tea trays. Or of building birds’ nests from the fresh grass cuttings (just in case a passing eagle fancied popping down for a long perch). Or trying super hard to swing the swings ALL the way round in the playground.

All these things we store in our happy place.


When I read that Lev Grossman’s The Magicians was a magic novel that tipped its hat to Narnia I thought it could be kitsch and fun.

If Narnia had been conceived by Stephen King this comparison could perhaps come close to the truth. Would it be possible for Grossman’s characters to be anymore loathsome? I’m not sure you could call Quentin Coldwater a protagonist let alone a hero because he seems to have NO redeeming qualities. For the record, I’m not a reader who needs a taintless protagonist. For instance, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin from China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. He’s not the best guy in the world. In fact, he’s pretty sleazy, but among his glaring, douche-y faults, he has one shining, likeable quality, and that one likeable quality wants me to see him succeed in everything he tries.

Quentin? I want him to fail. I want him to lose his magic. I want his life in the fantasy world to end so that he can’t EVER go on another quest again. He’s a ‘magician’ who hacks into ATMs because he practically leaks greed and apathy. He bewitches corporations into giving him a desk job where he sits and plays Minesweeper all day and still makes bank. The other characters? Even worse. Juila, a twenty-something magician described as a ‘freight train of magical pedagogy’ throws a rock through a sports car window. Another one, Eliot, has to find the Seven Golden Keys of Filory. But he bangs on about how wonderful he is whilst doing it, and says: ‘I could imagine finding one every few years.  Organize my holidays around it’.

And my goodness the plethora of pop culture references.

You can’t immerse yourself in a fantasy when you’re being bombarded with Dune references and Harry Potter references and Lord of the Rings references. Give me a fantasy where I can lose myself and not be reminded over and over again that I’m reading a book because that, though Grossman may not know it for whatever reason, is why I picked it up in the first place.

That’s right. I found this book utterly dreary from start to finish. Even the Arctic fox sex scene which made the coffee go sour in my mouth.

I hear Grossman is planning on writing more of these travesties. Count. Me. Out.