2017: My year of rereads and new non-fiction


The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger (reread)

The Hours by Michael Cunningham (reread)

Frightmares: A History of British Horror Cinema by Ian Cooper (new non-fiction)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (reread)

My Old Man edited by Ted Kessler (new non-fiction)

My Salinger Year by Joanna Kosoff (new non-fiction)

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (reread)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (reread)

In the Cut by Susanna Moore (reread)

For Esmé, With Love and Squalor (published originally as Nine Stories) by J.D. Salinger (reread)

For the Time Being by Dirk Bogarde (new non-fiction)

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (reread)

Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters/Seymour – An Introduction by J.D. Salinger (reread)

Animal Farm by George Orwell (reread)

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (reread)

Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (new non-fiction)

Praxis by Fay Weldon (reread)

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (new non-fiction)

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (reread)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (reread)

British Film Makers: Michael Reeves by Benjamin Halligan (new non-fiction)

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (reread)

Strange Labyrinth by Will Ashon (new non-fiction)

Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel (new non-fiction)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (reread)

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black (reread)

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (new non-fiction)

Out of Time by Miranda Sawyer (new non-fiction)

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (reread)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (reread)

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier (reread)

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier (reread)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (new non-fiction)

The Progress of Love by Alice Munro (reread)

Must You Go? by Antonia Fraser (new non-fiction)

How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer (reread)

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion (new non-fiction)

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro (reread)

The White Album by Joan Didion (new non-fiction)

After Henry by Joan Didion (new non-fiction)

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (new non-fiction)

After my accidental reading challenge of 2016, I decided to set a new one for 2017.

I don’t reread books – it feels like such a luxury when there are so many that I’ve never read. The only exception is The Catcher in the Rye (more on that later), and when I’ve had to reread something for exams (and more of that later, too).

In order to ease the guilt I thought I might experience if I just reread books, I decided to mix in some new (to me, at least) writing – and as I don’t read as much non-fiction as I’d like, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to offset the fiction rereads with new material.

But I started the year with The Catcher in the Rye – my third reading. I read it in my mid-teens, a few years after it came to my attention as a result of the murder of John Lennon. I remember liking it, but it was clear to me on my second reading, in my late-20s, that I hadn’t really got it first time round. In that second reading, the book revealed itself as sharp and funny in a way I hadn’t registered before. By this third reading, aged 48, I found it devastating – still funny, yes – but also unbearably sad. I found Holden lingering in my imagination for days afterwards, worrying about him, wondering if things turned out ok for him. When friends scoffed at him as a petulant, whinging teenager, I reminded them of this: his brother has died. This is a boy who is grieving, bereaved. It’s a book about death and depression, and I love it so.

After The Hours, a book I loved as much as on my first reading, I turned to my first non-fiction of the year. Frightmares is written by one of my oldest friends (and I even get a thank you in the acknowledgements) and published by another friend. In its discussion and analysis of a number of British horror films, it’s as obsessive, thorough and idiosyncratic as its author, and I whizzed through this whistlestop tour.

The Secret History accompanied me to Antwerp on my first work trip of the year, and on a non-work related train journey to Bruges. I first read it in 1998, and loved it. I was less enamoured of it this time around, and it took me a while to get back into its rhythms and to engage with the characters. Nonetheless, its meandering melancholy still hit the spot.

I finally got around to reading something I’d contributed to – My Old Man: Tales of our Fathers. In December 2014, Ted Kessler published a piece I wrote about my dad on his website, My Old Man. That piece was taken down when Ted decided he wanted to include it in the book version, amongst a few other pieces from the website, and a raft of new stories of fathers told by their famous offspring. So I found myself nestled between Shaun Ryder and Nathan McGough, and sharing book space with musicians, artists and writers.

I’ve known John since I entered the world of publishing, in 2006 (and he is the publisher behind the aforementioned Frightmares). Until recently, I only knew of his wife, Kathy, from her witty additions to his Facebook wall. Then she came to work for the company I work for. Her stint was short, but in that time we realised we had a shared humour and an adoration of books. Our regular treat was lunch and a full dissection of what we’d been reading. Even now when we meet, we bring lists so we don’t forget to cover everything; most recently, Kathy brought a PHOTO – a photo! – to ensure nothing was forgotten from our discussion. I told you we had stuff in common. Because I’d reread Catcher in the Rye, Kathy loaned me My Salinger Year, albeit not entirely without doubts. Like Kathy, I found its evocation of a particular period of New York publishing interesting and engaging; also, like Kathy, I wondered why editorial assistants don’t just make a sandwich instead of buying lunch EVERY DAY and then moaning about not having any money. On the whole, a missed opportunity but I was grateful for this tiny glimpse into Salinger.

I interspersed my re-reading of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and For Esmé, With Love and Squalor, with two dark women-led novels: The Bell Jar and In the Cut. The former was funnier than I remembered from my first reading as a neurotic early 20-something (although I don’t think this proves a reduction in my neuroses), and the writing sang off the page – such beautifully constructed, delicate sentences. The latter held up to my memory of it – a short, savage, brutal little piece; dirty and dark.

I read For the Time Being next – a collection of Dirk Bogarde’s journalism. He covered a range of reviews, character sketches and opinion pieces in a voice that was waspish and smart, his wit delivered with a curled lip.

American Pastoral disappointed this time round, where on my first reading I had loved it; I felt I really got Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters/ Seymour – An Introduction for the first time on this reread. Seymour Glass is so present in all of the Glass stories – and yet so absent, as we know him almost entirely through the eyes of others.

I returned to my mid-teens next, and two classics that I’d loved on the first reading and still liked enormously this time around. I bought Animal Farm in W.H. Smiths in Basildon on the day I came home after my final ‘O’ Level exam (History) on 17 June 1985 (I know! I recall this day clearly, and yet I cannot remember why I went into the kitchen). A colleague was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray at the same time as me, and our lunchtime Skype messages demonstrate the depth of our mutual literary analysis:

Me: Have you got to the bit where [insert particularly obnoxious scene]? Dorian Gray is a prick.

H: [laughing face emojis] Oh my God, total prick.

An ex-boyfriend and fellow Seinfeld enthusiast gave me his copy of Seinfeldia because he didn’t see the need to hang on to it. He clearly knew that I would feel the same, giving me permission to donate it to a charity shop when I had finished. I don’t know how I got through it, but I managed. It’s astonishing that so dull a book could have been written about so brilliant a show. I haven’t followed its progress from the shelf of the charity shop it ended up in. It might still be there.

My third year graduation project was loosely inspired by Praxis (very loosely indeed, unrecognisably so, copyright lawyers) – a book that once meant so much to me that it was my gift of choice to feminist friends back in the early ’90s, after I studied it on my degree. Its impact didn’t quite remain but I can see how 21-year-old me fell for it, and there is still a piece of my heart in there somewhere.

I discovered Olivia Laing last year, and now have read all of her published book-length non-fiction. The Lonely City, like her previous works, is a gorgeous gem. For me, no one quite gets the loneliness of modern life like Laing, and no one can expand on the deeply personal so that her voice attaches itself to art, culture, a wider sense of life, with honesty and insight. Her thoughts are expressed in sentences that glitter and shimmer. I’m gutted that I can’t read her debut novel, because of my stupid, stupid rule-making.

I’ve wanted to reread As I Lay Dying for years. As an A Level student, it knocked me sideways; I’d never read anything like it. But as an A Level student, I also had a propensity for terribly unhelpful notes, and no one wants to see – thirty years later – sentences underlined, with the word ‘metaphor’ neatly and thoughtfully spelled out in the margin. And don’t get me started on the dozen or so tiny essay plans, for all exam eventualities. Luckily, with time, the pencil marks had faded, and ­the fractured narrative worked its charm all over again.

Amanda bought me The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay for my 40th birthday, because it’s one of her favourite novels. First time, it took me a while to get into it, although I remember liking it. Second time I plunged in and devoured it, as it devoured my heart in turn. I simply loved it.

I’d just had some terrible news when I travelled off to York for a writing break in May, so maybe that influenced by dislike of British Film Makers: Michael Reeves. I tired very quickly of the speculative nature of it; how Reeves ‘would probably have read this’ or ‘probably have seen that’. It felt trashy and desperate; ill-fitting of a fascinating filmmaker.

In the summer of 2003, I sat up all night in a hotel bathroom in Oslo, reading If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (I didn’t want to disturb my friend Alex, who was sleeping off sun-induced vomiting and a lupus flare up). This year I could barely get through it, finding the text and structure ponderous and schematic on this second reading.

Will Ashon was interviewed by Max Porter at my wonderful local independent bookshop, and I bought the former’s Strange Labyrinth, a funny, intimate, swirling account of Epping Forest. I followed this with Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost, on loan from my friend Katy. More accessible than I imagine her fiction to be (I’ve never read anything beyond a couple of short stories) it did make me want to head to her award-winning novels. But I can’t, because I am playing by the rules.

Two rereads followed. To Kill a Mockingbird, described by Kathy as ‘line by line the greatest novel I’ve ever read’ enchanted me even more on this second reading. If there’s a greater, more delightful and moving entrance into literature than that of Boo Radley, I’ve yet to read it. Then, in Chicago, staying on after a work trip in July, I reread Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a wonderful collection of short stories recommended to me by my friend Andrew, and first read years ago. I’d been burned during my year of reading women by Black’s debut novel, which felt clunky and clichéd. But the short stories still demonstrated Black’s ability to render loss and love and life so truthfully as to be almost surgically accurate and transcendent.

I also started When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi during the Chicago trip, on loan from Kathy. And whilst it feels churlish and unkind to be critical of someone whose memoirs were published posthumously, I didn’t feel that the writing style of this account of the author’s cancer diagnosis and treatment revealed any great insights into the illness. I appreciated the honesty and openness, and the book was not without its interesting passages, but for me it was not the work of genius the cover and some of the reviews had led me to believe. Kalanithi was clearly an incredible surgeon, and a great husband, son, and father. But I didn’t feel that he was a great writer.

I’ve grown up with Miranda Sawyer: we’re a similar age; she wrote for Select magazine when I was reading it; I’ve seen her early attempts at television presenting and interviewing develop and improve; and when I read her writing in the Observer about growing up, not being able to afford a house, whether that really matters, I felt stabs of recognition. I read her book Out of Time whilst on holiday in Singapore and Malaysia. Every sentence struck a chord. It has become my bible – somewhere to turn for advice and support from someone whose style feels like she is speaking to me.

I wanted to get stuck into a novel after the short stories and two consecutive non-fiction reads, and The Lacuna was the obvious choice. I loved this on my first reading (another example of weeping at my desk over the last few pages). There are passages of this book – about art, writing, creativity, identity – that resonate so strongly that it feels written for me alone. In my view, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling, and its structure, characterisation and plot show a writer at the height of her powers.

I was unexpectedly moved by my rereading of The Great Gatsby – maybe I just understood it more this time around; maybe as I get older the melancholic sense of loss, and the loneliness at the heart of the characters strikes harder. Whatever the reasons, I loved this. I enjoyed revisiting Daphne Du Maurier’s short stories across two collections. The two stories that have been turned into films (‘The Birds’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’) still stand out for me.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was another science-based work loaned to me by Kathy. I liked the style, was impressed by the research and dedication that informed the writing, found that I could keep up with the clever stuff, and felt smarter by the time I got to the end of it.

The Progress of Love was one of two Alice Munro short story collections I read this year (the other being Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage). There’s nothing I can say about Munro and her short story writing. She just knows how to do it, and she’s simply one of the best.

I studied Pinter at school, and have periodically returned to him over the years via performances of his plays and interviews with him. In the last few years I have written a screenplay in which he features, and I decided it was time to read Must You Go?, Antonia Fraser’s memoir of their meeting, relationship and marriage. It’s a love story told, of necessity, from Fraser’s point of view. So, as romantic and heartfelt as it is, I also had to try to read with a critical eye. But that aside, it’s full of wit and love, and Pinter comes over as irascible and funny as I had imagined (and as I had indeed written his character myself, based on my interpretation of his character from interviews and other people’s opinions). Just lovely.

How to Breathe Underwater was next. My friend Jane had suggested I buy this a few years ago. I’d never heard of Julie Orringer but I am glad she was brought into my life. Like Robin Black, she crafts her sentences with such care and truthfulness, gets inside her characters, and articulates loss and the pain of growing up like few others writing today, in my view.

I ended the year sprinkling some Joan Didion throughout these final rereads. Amanda bought me a book containing Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album and After Henry, and between them I discovered some of the best non-fiction writing I’ve read. If there’s a more economical and insightful explanation of why a certain kind of Californian woman might have an affair, I’ve yet to read it: “a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed.”

I ended the year with a book borrowed from my friend Daisy, a book for which I had very high hopes, but which ultimately disappointed me. I wanted to love Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, as much as I love Carrie Fisher. I wanted it to be as smart and clever and funny as her. Because I miss her, and I wanted her to live again on the page. And to an extent, she did. But the overwhelming effect for me was of a flimsy tale, padded out, unedited, in need of another going over with sharper eyes. It isn’t the book she deserved; in my view, it doesn’t do her justice.

Reading challenge 2018 will see me tackle authors I’ve never read. I’m excited about visiting some gaps in my classic literature background (and I might have to finally get beyond the first few pages of Wuthering Heights), and discovering some new writers.

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