Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

The best books of 2015

My apologies for the mixture of photos in this post – I have lent out some of the books featured so wasn’t able to take a nice photo of them and had to find images of the covers online. Not ideal, but there you go…

 

Somehow 2015 is over, and I have naturally been thinking about all the books I’ve read this year, and which was the best, and the worst, and which ones were in between. According to GoodReads I red 34 books in 2015 (one off my target of 35!), which is less than I usually read – I blame the new, busier job I started half way through the year!

I read a couple of super dupers early in the year, namely Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Two very different books, but I loved them both. Bonjour Tristesse is sort of a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about love and relationships and jealousy, and it is beautifully crafted. Tracks could also be seen as a coming-of-age tale, though it is about the author finding herself in the desert, which is a bit different to a posh holiday by the sea. It is fascinating, engaging, emotional, and just brilliant. It also proves why dogs are better than people.

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One of my very favourite books this year was The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. It was a random book I heard about on Twitter, but it was just wonderful to read. It is the story of the life of Olive Oatman, who was captured by Native Americans in the 1800s and lived with them for a few years before being ‘returned’ to ‘her people’. There are many other stories like Olive’s but this is a good place to start with this genre.

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The next amazing book I read was The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. I was umming and ahhing about this one, but then Carolyn’s amazing post convinced me I must read it. And it was wonderful! Even thinking about it now fills me with hope and wonder. It celebrates everything about Homer and demonstrates why The Odyssey and The Iliad are so integral to the development of Western literature, and why we should all appreciate them more.

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

Since then I’ve mostly liked the books I’ve read (with one notable exception), so I’m just going to pick out a few…

I adored Forgotten Fatherland by Ben McIntyre. It popped up in my GoodReads recommendations, and it is one of the weirdest and most brilliant books I have ever read. It tells the story of Elisabeth Nietszche (sister of the philosopher) and the Aryan colony she set up in Paraguay with her husband. They were essentially early versions of Nazis, and in later life, when she returned to Germany, Elisabeth was a friend of Hitler and his party. He even came to her funeral. It has to be read to be believed.

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

I also very much enjoyed the three Shirley Jackson books I have read this year: Hangsaman, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are all weird and strange and brilliant, and I loved all of them a lot. I am now on a mission to read everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote, and she has set a lot of wheels in motion in my head with my own writing. If I could be a modern-day version of her as a writer, I’d be happy. More Shirley in 2016!

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I must recommend the two books about mental health that I read this year: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. The former is quite dark and a bit bleak, though with a hopeful ending, and was really fascinating. I preferred reading Girl, Interrupted as it was less matter-of-fact and more about a very personal experience. These two books work in different ways, but both are illuminating, moving, and very well-written.

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And lastly I want to mention the book I recently posted about, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is the first book of Atwood’s I have read, and I think it was a good place for me to start. This is more my kind of thing than her science fiction/fantasy novels, and I will definitely read more of her work – just not all of it. I loved Alias Grace for a lot of reasons – I loved the setting and the atmosphere, the descriptions of daily life in Victorian Canada (and learning about that country’s history), and I loved the ambiguity and nuance of Grace and her story. Read more in my recent post here.

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So there you have it! The best books I have read this year. I am looking forward to many more fantastic reads in 2016.

What have been your best books of 2015?

 

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson (1951)

I had never read anything by Shirley Jackson before this, and I don’t know what it was specifically that made me choose this book, Hangsaman, over her others. Possibly because it was just not the one that everyone has been talking about recently (that would be We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which honestly looks brilliant). Also I liked the PMC cover. Anyway, I chose Hangsaman as my first Shirley Jackson, and I am glad I did. You should read it too. Let me tell you why…

2013 PMC edition (image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

Firstly, Hangsaman is really quite odd and I really quite liked that. The first section especially is quite surreal and almost dreamy, and I have to admit it took a while to get into. But I still liked it, even though I wasn’t sure I got it yet, so I kept reading. I liked Natalie, our main character, who is young and awkward and weird, and just trying to understand the mess of life that surrounds her. That is probably how I would summarise the book, other than saying that most of the story takes place once Natalie has left home for college. Hangsaman was first published in 1951, and that appears to be the era in which it is set. Natalie attends a women’s college and moves into a house (what we would now call Halls) with her own room, which she loves, and she is surrounded by ALL THESE OTHER GIRLS. Jackson’s description of teenage girls, especially en masse or in cliques, is just spot on. Having gone to an all-girls school for fourteen years, I know how this bullshit works, and Jackson knows too. There is a particularly brilliant passage in which she describes the girls on their first night, gathered in the living/common room and trying to get to know each other. It is too long to quote in full, but it begins:

They sat around the living room of the house, the girls who were to live in it, eyeing one another, each one wondering, perhaps which of the others was to be her particular friend, sought out hereafter at such meetings, joined in the terrible sacred friendship of these years. Each one wondering, perhaps, who it was just and right to be afraid of in the room…

That ellipsis is mine, as it goes on from there. Natalie has to navigate this minefield and try to find someone to befriend and trust, two things that do not necessarily go hand in hand in this situation. Because other people are unknowable. And in a way, Natalie is unknowable, to either herself of the reader. The back cover of this PMC edition states that Natalie’s “identity gradually crumbles.” From the start she doesn’t know who she is, and her college experiences only confound this. There is a lot of wonderful free indirect speech within which we get glimpses of Natalie’s lack of surety and confidence in herself, including some wonderful moments musing on whether or not she is really Natalie at all.

But Natalie does make friends, for better or worse, and in the last third of the book meets “the girl Tony”, a mysterious figure who appears almost like a nymph or a fairy… or something darker. The reader is not quite sure, and neither is Natalie.The middle of the book is mostly concerned with college life, and Natalie starting to move from girl to young woman, and towards the end of the book, with Tony, Natalie seems to retreat more and more into her own mind. The weirdness gets weirder, and though this could have made the whole thing fall apart, Jackson manages to have enough control that there is still a coherent thread throughout. The last section of the book is the oddest of all, and we wonder which parts of it are real and which parts are in Natalie’s head. Mostly I was left wondering about the connection with the line on the back of the book, that says Hangsaman was “inspired by the unsolved disappearance of a female college student near Shirley Jackson’s home”. I’m still thinking about how that applies to the story, and I think there are multiple layers here that I will only manage to uncover over time, as I think about the book more and it sinks in a little. It is quite an intense book, and you’ve got to get comfortable with it, and used to it, to really get it I think.

As I mentioned to start with, I rather like the 2013 PMC cover – it is sparse and cold, but I think it works very well. Luckily GoodReads have their ‘Other Editions’ option that shows you previous covers. And Hangsaman has had some weird ones, which I will leave you with here…

All cover images from GoodReads, by the way. Also I’m not sure if there were any new editions between 1976 and 2013 – there must have been. Research needed.

Who else has read Hangsaman? Thoughts?

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Originally published in 1951. I read the 2013 Penguin Modern Classics edition, pictured above.

 

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