It started as half a joke. Late November I chaired an author event at Waterstone’s West End (i.e.: Princes Street, Edinburgh). At the end, I half-jokingly asked the two Ians if they would pay me to waft around the shop throughout December, encouraging people to buy this or that book…. Frankly, I needed the money, and love encouraging people to read.
They didn’t have funding for a new, eccentric member of staff, but asked me to create a list — drawn from my shelves — of my all time favourite and most important books. I had the hardest time. ONLY 40? Then I had to revise it because not all of the books I chose were available in the UK. (Believe it or not, Colette’s The Pure and the Impure fell into that category, as did a Christina Stead book called Letty Fox, Her Luck, though I’ve seen it in secondhand shops.)
Here, then, is the list I sent, with additions. I left out so many people and books — I could do another forty with no repetition– that I love with a passion (including Amy Bloom, who is so, so good, and many more).
What they’ve done is order up the books, and put them on a table! For sale! I am overexcited. If you’re in Edinburgh or thereabouts, stop in and buy some. Then we can discuss (or argue) about whether you did or didn’t enjoy them.
(Not) 40 OF MY FAVOURITE BOOKS — in no particular order
So this is a start. I tried to steer people toward things they may not have already read. Tried not to include too many children’s books, despite the temptation to do so. And I’ve deliberately NOT repeated books featured on my blog post: Best of 2015.
1. The Winter’s Tale by Daniel Helperin
I read this as a much younger woman. I yearn to reread it and also not to, in case I discover it’s mince. I remember being entranced because it’s set in a real place I love — my birthplace, NYC — but a re-imagined, more surreal city.
2. Little, Big by John Crowley
Crowley is relatively little-known but much loved by his fans, who include savvy bookseller Lucy Fisher (@lucyfishwife). I read this around the same time as the Helperin, and was similarly entranced because it takes my city and tilts it, magically. Published in 1981, won the World Fantasy Award in 1982. In 2009 the Guardian ran this celebration: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/mar/04/little-big-crowley-faerie-fairys. I notice the writer cites Helperin! Funnily enough, I don’t normally read fantasy novels. Another novel I long to revisit.
3. The Brontes Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
Ferguson is a tricky author — she held views I cannot countenance, and her work is uneven (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Ferguson). This, her beloved breakout novel concerns a family of genteelly shabby women who have an elaborate relationship with their imaginary friends — all based on real people. This is disrupted by actually meeting those people. Luckily they are charmed, and play along. Things get spooky, when the Brontes arrive as ghosts. Everyone who’s ever had an imaginary friend will relate to this book.
4. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
The first Comyns that I read, and thanks to my friend Alice for putting it in my hands. The quirky voice converted me into a massive fan after about ten pages. I’ve since devoured all her novels. Comyns writes of weird and wonderful people (many drawn from life) inhabiting a magic realist world where the oddest, most poignant things occur. It’s her characters’ unexpected attitudes and reactions that get me in the gut.
5. The Nancy Mitford Omnibus [The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, Don’t Tell Alfred, The Blessing]
My intro to a family that’s given me endless hours of pleasure. I have a whole shelf devoted to books by the Mitfords and about the Mitfords. Bliss and belly laughs.
6. The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh
Two of the brightest, bitchiest writers of the 20th century in top scathing form, over a lifetime’s correspondence. They slag others and one another equally. I dove in and only came up for air a week later.
7. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
White never wrote a dud sentence in his entire life. Such was his elegance and ability that I am endlessly awestruck. I’ve a large collection of his work and works about him. I reread Charlotte regularly. As a child I cried at her death because it startled me. Older now, I cry because “no one was with her when she died.” Possibly the greatest novel ever written about the PR industry. Get the edition with the Garth Williams illustrations, if possible.
8. Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers
Magical, mystical (Travers was a follower of Gurdjieff), vain, and queen of the mind-f***, Ms Poppins is one of the greatest fictional characters ever created. I frequently return to this series when I need a boost. The “storyline” with the starling moves me. I adore Mary Shepard’s illustrations. I cannot abide the film.
9. The Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum
I have all of Baum’s Oz books, and The Annotated Wizard of Oz, too. Completist, moi?! Many more adventures here than are in the magnificent 1939 film. (Which I have memorised.)
10. Lorrie Moore, The Collected Stories
One of the best, and funniest practitioners of one of my favourite formats, the short story. Perfectly illustrates my conviction that humour is more effective than preaching for getting your point across.
11. The Portable Dorothy Parker
IGNORE the evil and nasty intro by Brendan Gill (better yet, buy the new edition edited by Marion Meade). DIVE into the glorious poems and stories by one of the sharpest tacks in the box. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll find one of my favourite poems, Resume. (“Razors pain you/rivers are damp…”)
12. Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant by Philip Hoare
What can I say? I love reading about crazy rich British people behaving oddly. When I heard about Stephen Tennant taking to his bed, I turned green with envy — it’s a lifelong ambition. The NYT summed up: “Cecil Beaton was one of the first to encourage Tennant’s eccentric vocation of doing nothing in life — but doing it with great originality and flamboyance.” It’s fabulous, darling.]
13. Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead
Stead is another not-read-enough writer whose work I revere. I was especially charmed by this depiction of a wannabe adventuress in 1930s-40s NYC and London. Letty knows that the only way for a gal to survive in the world is by landing a good husband. Along the way she has many saucy adventures.]
14. The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West
Everyone knows West’s nonfiction. Not enough people read her superb novels, which I strongly prefer. She is wise and witty and her descriptions make me want to sharpen my pencil. For example: “Isabelle found her visitors not unlikeable people. It was true that they were catarrhal with affection . . . endearments flowed from them as freely as rheum from an irritated mucous membrane.”
15. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
I think I like this even better than the very good House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, though the tales of young women seeking fortune and being led astray are loosely similar. Having struggled through An American Tragedy (voluntarily!), I was wary of Dreiser, but tipped off to this by a pal. It’s a gripping story, well told.
16. The Locusts Have No King by Dawn Powell
I noisily and regularly encourage people to read Powell, the woman some insist really said all the funny things ascribed to Dorothy Parker (this I doubt). Powell wrote great novels set in Ohio and great novels set in NYC. This one satirises the publishing industry. Powell’s humour is stygian. I adore her.
17. View with a Grain of Sand by Wislawa Szymborska
I discovered her via a magazine profile when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. This collection is drawn from her life’s work. Deceptively simple writing, it blossoms beautifully during multiple re-readings.
18. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
I am a Feminist and an unrepentant Miller fan. I love his chewy, purple passages, his exuberance for life, and his joy in language. I have masses of his books, but recommend this as a place to start — because it’s where I started.
19. Elizabeth Taylor Complete Short Stories
I revere ET and am working my way (joyously) through her canon. Because I cannot chose one of her novels as best (they’re all superb), I steer you to this fat volume of stories. Each displays the penetrating insight, the elegance of expression, and the compassionate (yet unsparing) humanity that makes Taylor so profoundly excellent.
20. A Legacy by Sybille Bedford
Again, I’m forced to eeeny meeny my way across the spines — all of Bedford’s books are hugely autobiographical and what a life she had! She writes about family secrets, scandals and “moral negligence” in a way that is spooky, absorbing, and unique.
21. Aberration of Starlight by Gilbert Sorrentino
I have the 1980 first American edition of this novel about love and sex, set in a New Jersey resort in 1939. Told from shifting perspectives, it’s funny and moving and another in the list of books I would most like to reread. I can’t recall the details, just the sensation I had while reading, of a hand squeezing my heart.
22. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Utterly riveting. Beautifully delivered. Chilling. Ground breaking. After reading this twice, as a teenager, I went on to the fiction. Like EB White, Capote is an exquisite stylist. He was also fabulously bitchy. Conversations with Capote is another gem of a collection, which Parade magazine called: “An engrossing read. Bitchy, high-camp opinions…from a tiny terror who wore brass knuckles on his tongue.”
23. Screwball by Ed Sikov
An illustrated exploration of my favourite film genre, Screwball Comedy. [Not out in UK.]
24. Once On a Time by A A Milne [not in print, I don’t think]
A sharp stick in the eye to the conventions of fairy tale romance, complete with hapless “heroes” and extremely plucky heroines. A book for grown ups about the foolishness we’re fed as kids. Properly hilarious.
25. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
I love all of Dickens, but this struck me at the time of reading (ages ago) as being his most psychologically astute novel.
26. When to Walk by Rebecca Gowers
This 2008 debut impressed the hell out of me. The protagonist is deaf, with a wonky pelvis, and has just been abandoned — sans money, sans dignity — by her husband. While those are ordinary themes for fiction, this novel is anything but.
27. 40 Stories by Donald Barthelme
Sui generis fiction by an accomplished master who eschews convention but never veers into contrivance. Often imitated. Read the real thing!
28. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Scene: Alaska, post WWII. The Jews have been given this frosty state for a homeland, not Israel. Orthodox gangs roam the streets. Chabon sends Detective Meyer Landsman after them in his homage to Noir films. A gorgeous novel with a beautiful soul.
29. Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Killing people is bad. So why do I feel such empathy for Dennis Nilsen? Because Masters does a masterful job of evoking his loneliness and his derangement. Once read, this story can never be forgotten.
30. My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber
I’m a massive New Yorker geek and devote a corner of my library to this magazine’s history and pantheon of great writers. Thurber makes me laugh, and has done since I was wee. The pictures! The stories! The relative who unscrews lightbulbs at night because electricity leaks! The mad dogs! Giggling now.
31. The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen
Because I had to pick one. Truly an intimidating talent. Truly an enjoyable one. Start anywhere and keep reading. There’s also a great anthology of her short stories. Like her friend Elizabeth Taylor, Bowen knows the human heart, down to the last ventricle.
32. The World to Come, by Dara Horn
A haunting, satisfying novel from a writer much-lauded in the USA (though I only discovered her after moving to the UK). In this, her second book, a Chagall painting is stolen by a former child prodigy determined to discover how it got into a museum in the first place, and whether it’s a forgery. The novel travels back to 1920s Russia, to track the painting’s origins. A gem. It will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.
33. Doctors and Nurses by Lucy Ellmann (The shop has Mimi — you can’t go wrong with Lucy, whatever you read.)
I was a fan and now I’m a friend of this funny, funny writer, whose books will make you snort and chortle, but whose message is serious: women matter. Warning: you will never look at a handbag in quite the same way after finishing this novel.
34. Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest
I have written an as-yet-unpublished novel about Jeanne Hebuterne, Modigliani’s young lover, and their tragic story. I have read a lot of books about Modigliani. This is the most even-handed and best of the bunch. A fascinating, frustrating exploration of the life and times of one of the world’s most charismatic artists.
35. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
The first instalment of the Deptford Trilogy, this was my tutelage in the idea that a writer can get away with anything if the work’s emotional core is grounded in reality. The improbable and impossible happen on every page, but Davies’ characters are recognisably human. From here, I went on an extended RD jag — but there’s something special about that first startling encounter with originality.
36. As Good As God, As Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson, by Rodney Bolt
A fan of Mapp and Lucia, I raced around the rest of E F Benson’s works, and found a fascinating essay about his unusual family. Years later, Bolt wrote this biography of mother Benson, which I gave a rave review in The Scotsman. A must for Benson fans, and pertinent, as well, as social history, for Mary’s status evaporated upon her husband’s death — freeing her to explore her true nature.
37. The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot by Angus Wilson
Does anyone read AW anymore? You should. Brilliant novels and short stories. Beloved of Margaret Drabble, whose biography of him sits waiting in my To Be Read tower(s). In 2008, novelist Susan Hill chose this as the book she’d most like to see back in print, calling it ‘one of the best modern novels about widowhood.”
38. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
There will always be Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, and there will always be novels by Gibbons on my bookshelves. This is deservedly treasured by all who read it.
39. Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Grieg
Further to my love of eccentric rich Brits behaving badly. . . and my curiosity about artists whose work I adore. Oh my lord, the GOSSIP and the indiscretions! Fascinating.
40. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
If, in life, we divide into Team Fitzgerald or Team Hemingway, you’ll find me on the former. We studied this in high school and I still admire it. Note: Anyone visiting Australia should snap up Nicki Greenburg’s graphic version — Daisy is a puffball and Gatsby a seahorse, which adds layers of emotion to an already nuanced work of art.
41. Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
From my Scotsman review when it came out: “Fascinating, full of bonkers facts and quotes, bolstering a clear-headed narrative that could have gone loop-the-loop in less skilled hands. It’s a contrast to Vreeland’s [WONDERFUL] autobiography, DV, which is full of the most outrageously amusing inaccuracies. Still, she believed her fictions wholeheartedly, and lived as though they were accurate, saying: ‘There’s only one very good life and that’s the life that you know you want and you make it yourself.’”
42. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
Take it from a gal who’s read a lot of self-help books: this is one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read, and should be mandatory reading in schools. I’m not even a fan of space exploration, yet I was regularly astounded, humbled, and amazed. Hadfield makes a strong case for “Being a Zero” — and it’s not what you think. He has much to teach us about humility, hard work, TEAMWORK, and taking a wonder-filled approach to life.
Just a few more….
43. Union Street by Pat Barker
From October 1979 to June 1980 I attended Durham University in northeast England for my “junior year abroad”. It’s an American thing. While there, I fell hard for that part of the world, for Durham itself, and the people I met — including some Geordies NOT attending uni, who offered me a radically different perspective. This brought that back with a wallop. Reading it felt like being thrown against the wall. The story about the young victim of sexual assault who clings to her attacker for comfort because there’s no one else ripped my heart in half.
44. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
Every word Jansson ever wrote — for children and for adults — every picture she drew, should be cherished. Choose anything of hers; you will be improved. I choose this because I read the school library’s edition as a child, and then for many years thought I had dreamed it. Moomintrolls, with their soothing round contours, could not possibly exist. But they do. And the world is better for that.
45. Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
Graham is an amazing artist. This is a book and a work of art, a full-length, collaged novel telling the story of Norma Fontaine, who inhabits a bubble of perfect femininity, as dictated by the women’s magazines of the 1960s. But all is not what it seems. . . See also Rawle’s imaginative take on The Wizard of Oz, and his novel, The Card, which will bewitch and beguile.
46. War Paint by Lindy Woodhead
Before she wrote about Mr Selfridge, Woodhead gave us this well-researched, addictively readable work of social history. Ostensibly a dual biography of Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, it’s more than a cradle to grave recitation. Woodhead provides context for the rise of the cosmetics industry and recounts eye-opening tales about ballsy female entrepreneurs operating in a world where women did not yet have the vote. She charts the rise of the luxury beauty industry in fascinating detail. Here is a link to my 2003 review: http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/you-couldn-t-make-it-up-1-602358.
47. Taking Pictures by Anne Enright
While all the world chattered about her Booker winning novel, The Gathering, I snuck off and read the proofs I’d been sent of this story collection. I fell in love. Such insight. Such clarity. Such dark humour.
48. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
A cautionary tale about the perils of genetic engineering. A love story about family ties. A cult classic. And, it turns out, the inspiration for The Jim Rose Circus. In a world of conformity, thank god for the Binewski family, the proudest oddballs ever to work a fairground. A book to get you questioning your definition of “normal”.
49. Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken
A book that will fill your heart with love over and over again. McCracken’s one of our finest writers and all her books are funny and peculiar, compassionate and full of magic. This traces the lives and times of Vaudeville partners Mose Sharp and Rocky Carter both on and off the stage. It held me by the throat from page one.
50. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Assigned reading my first semester at university for a course called Women in Fiction. I struggled for ages with the first 50 pages — then something clicked. I read through dinner; I read through the night; by morning I was changed. Woolf showed how a novel could crawl inside your brain, your veins, and describe their contents perfectly.
51. A Dictionary — The shorter Oxford English?
I’ve been playing Desert Island Discs for as long as I can remember, but while the records change, I always choose the same book: an unabridged dictionary. My reasoning? Every other book in the world is already inside it — you just have to get them back out. That qualifies me for Pseuds’ Corner. So be it. Words. Language. That’s where this all begins.