Tag Archives: Olivia Laing

My books of the year, 2020 – part 1, novellas and non-fiction

2020 has been a tumultuous year for obvious reasons. I’ve read somewhere in the region of 100 books – most of them in the first half of the year while on furlough during the national lockdown. A stressful time for many of us, I’m sure; but it did give me the chance to read some excellent books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across a couple of posts – novellas and non-fiction in this first piece, with my favourite novels to follow next week. With the exception of some of the memoirs, most of these books were first published several years ago – a factor that reflects the types of books I tend to enjoy reading. So, if you’re looking for the best *new* books published in 2020, this is not the place to come – there are many other literary blogs which cover that territory very thoroughly…

So, without further ado, here are my favourite novellas and non-fiction books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Novellas

The Dig by Cynan Jones

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion, beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose. The narrative focuses on Daniel, a recently widowed sheep farmer struggling to cope with the lambing season deep in rural Wales. In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world – and yet, there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella; it’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view. Dougal Douglas is a particularly sinister character, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you liked Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll enjoy this too.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery.

The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr,

Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s earlier novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Head. This is a very amusing book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A marvellous period piece imbued with nostalgia.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. One for book groups and individual readers alike. 

Non-Fiction

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Ostensibly a memoir exploring Orr’s childhood – in particular the fractured relationship between the author and her mother Win, a formidable woman who held the reins of power within the family’s household. Moreover, this powerful book also gives readers a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the steel industry’s decimation – especially on Motherwell (where Orr grew up) and the surrounding community. This is a humane, beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

A fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf. What I love about this book is the way the author uses this particular location as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In short, an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book, highly recommended for anyone interested in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once. At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation. Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, she explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. A fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares. In writing Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too. I read this during lockdown, and it lifted my mood considerably.

How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher

Another excellent lockdown read, but for very different reasons to those for Broken Greek. Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. A rediscovered gem to dip into for pleasure.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Harvey’s book is something of a companion piece to Insomnia, Marina Benjamin’s luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. The Shapeless Unease brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this interminable condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another. Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. One to keep by the bedside for the long white nights when sleep fails to come.

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s Jewish grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century. It’s a book that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility – topics that remain all too relevant in Europe and the wider world today, where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

So, that’s it for my novellas and non-fiction books of the year. My one regret is that I never found the time to write about Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, a book I adored. Join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite novels from a year of reading.

Reading Women: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

In this age of social distancing and self-isolation, I’m finding myself drawn to certain types of non-fiction, typically books with a connection to the arts or cultural world. Two recent reads that really stand out on this front are The Lonely City, Olivia Laing’s meditative exploration of loneliness in an urban environment and Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz’s seductive collection of essays.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. (pp. 3–4)

At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation.   

Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, Laing explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. While this is clearly a very personal and well-researched book, the author uses this wealth of information very carefully, weaving it seamlessly into the body of the text in a way that feels thoughtful and engaging.

Laing examines the work of several artists, from the relatively well-known (Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol) to the less familiar (David Wojnarowicz and Henry Drager), each contributing something unique to the scene. Here’s a passage from the chapter on Hopper, surely the foremost visual poet of urban alienation, an artist with the ability to convey the experience with such insight and intensity.

Hopper routinely reproducers in his paintings ‘certain kinds of spaces and spatial experiences common in New York that result from being physically close to others but separated from them by a variety of factors, including movement, structures, windows, walls and light or darkness’. This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure. (p.17)

At the start of her time in New York, Laing recognises in herself a growing anxiety about acceptance and visibility. On the one hand, she longs to be seen, to be valued and accepted by those around her. On the other, she feels dangerously exposed, wary of being judged by others, particularly when alone. During her investigations, Laing discovers various aspects that together prompt a deeper understanding of her own relationship with the condition. These range from the loneliness of difference and not fitting in – as typified by Andy Warhol’s early life – to loneliness as a longing for integration as well as acceptance. There is also a section on the particular challenges of making meaningful connections with people in the digital age, where smartphones and other devices facilitate non-physical forms of interaction.

In summary, this is a fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Slow Days, Fast Company – The World, The Flesh and L.A by Eve Babitz (1977)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles, the city of her birth. These days she is perhaps best known for her writing, mostly thanks to NYRB Classics and their stylish reissues of her work.

I’ve written before about my fondness for Babitz’s writing with its fluid, naturally cool style. (My post on her marvellous autobiographical novel, Eve’s Hollywood, is here.) Strictly speaking, Slow Days is probably classified as autofiction rather than memoir, but the ten essays/sketches in this excellent book feel very autobiographical.

Babitz grew up in a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio 20th Century Fox, and her mother, Mae, was an artist. Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky, Eve’s godfather. However, unlike others with this type of background, Babitz doesn’t namedrop for kudos or attention; instead, her writing reflects a long-term relationship with California., snapshots of her bohemian lifestyle within the cultural milieu.

In Slow Days, Babitz conveys an enthralling portrait of Californian life, turning her artistic eye to subjects including men, relationships, fame, friendship, parties, baseball and drugs. She writes of deserts, vineyards, rivers and bars, the essays taking us across the state from Bakersfield to Palm Springs to Emerald Bay, each one portraying a strong sense of place.

Babitz’s style is at once both easy-going and whip-smart, a beguiling mix of the confessional and insightful. She is particularly good on the superficiality of success, the emptiness that can often accompany popularity and fame. Janis Joplin is a touchstone here, particularly as the pair had met just weeks before Joplin’s death.

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have “everything,” not success-type “everything.” I mean, not when the “everything” isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (when even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent). There’s no precedent for women getting their own “everything” and learning that it’s not the answer. Especially when you got fame, money, and love by belting out how sad and lonely and beaten you were. Which is only a darker version of the Hollywood “everything” in which the more vulnerability and ineptness you project onto the screen, the more fame, money and love they load you with. They’ll only give you “everything” if you appear to be totally confused. Which leaves you with very few friends. (p. 54–55)

While Babitz isn’t particularly famous herself at this point, she comes close enough to detect the stench of success, a smell she describes as a blend of ‘burnt cloth and rancid gardenias.’ As Babitz reflects, the truly dreadful thing about success is that it’s built up to be the thing that will make everything alright, when in fact the opposite is often true, leaving loneliness and desolation in its wake.

I’ll finish with a final passage, one that reminds me just how naturally funny Babitz can be – this is a book full of quotable lines and sharp humour

L.A. is loaded with designers, art directors, and representatives from amazing Milanese furniture manufacturers. These people don’t live in apartments like most people, or studios like artists; they live in “spaces.” “How do you like my space?” they ask, showing you some inconceivable, uncozy, anti-Dickens ode to white, chrome and inch-thick glass.

“But where do you sleep?” I wonder, nervous.

“There’s a space up those stairs,” I’m told.

“But those stairs…I mean, those stairs don’t have banisters. Aren’t you afraid of falling head first on your coffee table and wrecking the glass? The glass looks pretty expensive.”

But designers never get looped enough to get blood on their spaces. Red doesn’t go with the white and chrome. (Not that they necessarily have red blood, come to think of it.) (p. 90) 

If you like this quote, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the book. If not, then it’s probably not for you.

My thanks to NYRB Classics for kindly providing a review copy of the Babitz. The Laing is published by Canongate, personal copy.