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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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

Well. This is a review I have been avoiding for a while. I finished reading The Mighty Dead about two weeks ago. I’d made some notes, but it is hard to put them together and get to the point of what I really think about this book.

2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

The fact is I feel quite strongly about it. It is, simply, a book I had been waiting for. One I dreamed would exist in some form. I don’t think I realised just how much I wanted this book to appear until it did. And yet I didn’t pounce on it when the hardback was first released – partly because of the expense and heft of the book, but also because I was nervous about reading it. What if it wasn’t all I hoped it would be? What if I didn’t like the writing or the author’s opinions? There are always reasons not to do things.

In the end it was, inevitably, a blog post that convinced me The Mighty Dead would be ‘safe’ to read, and that I should just go for it. The fantastic Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses wrote a brilliant post that I could not ignore. She was my fellow reader and sent away all my worries. I had to read this book! So thank you Carolyn.

Adam Nicolson has great passion for Homer, and he is a wonderful guide to the works themselves, as well as the concepts and ideas within them, and the cultural and historical context and influence of both The Iliad and The Odyssey. His writing is academic yet accessible, conversational but not too chatty, and he includes scenes from his own life that add context and reality to elements of Homer, relating them to real life in the most beautiful and effective ways. He is a wonderful writer.

The chapter divisions are very effective. Nicolson takes us on a journey of how one come to love and understand Homer, but also through the different sides of Homer – the poems themselves, their time and place, a bit of text analysis, as well as the context and influence of the poems. There is a spattering of European history throughout the book as Nicolson relates Homer to a world we know, or at least know of. All this is utterly fascinating, and I feel that I really learned something new and can now appreciate Homer in a new way, as something that is an integral part of Euro-Asian (well the western part of Asia) history. That is something very special.

You probably do need to have at least some knowledge of Homer in order to read The Mighty Dead; but I do think that it could also serve as a very thorough introduction for someone who has perhaps heard about The Iliad and The Odyssey, and wants to know more before reading them. It is certainly a good idea to know something about the poems before you read them, even if only basic context. I think the more you understand the poems, the more you appreciate them.

They are simply wonderful. I first read The Odyssey at school, where I studied it at both GCSE and A Level. Going through it twice – both times with the same dedicated and inspiring teacher – meant that I am immensely fond of it. I haven’t read it all the way through in a while, but I remembered almost all of the scenes Nicolson references in The Mighty Dead, and my prior knowledge meant that I could revel in the analysis and exploration of its characters and themes. For me, almost all of life is covered by and contained within The Odyssey. It taught me a lot about storytelling, leadership, love and family, the passage of time, dealing with the past – and looking to the future. It is undeniably Ancient Greek and of its time, but it is also universal. In my opinion everyone should read it.

I have never studied The Iliad, but have read it on my own, which made me appreciate about much it helps to be guided through Homer. Reading it ‘alone’ can  sometimes be overwhelming – so a book like The Mighty Dead really is a godsend. The Iliad is different from The Odyssey in many ways, but it still encompasses most of life. Simone Weil called it a ‘poem of force‘, which makes sense – it is intense, visceral, full of power, desire, physicality, love, life, and death. This is why the two poems, and Homer, have survived history and are still with us – they speak to us of things we never knew, but also of things we’ve known all along in some way, in our hearts, even if we didn’t really know that we knew them.

It is difficult to explain this – the point is that I urge you to read Homer if you haven’t already and to re-read if you have, as I plan to; and to read The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. It is just brilliant.

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Published in 2014 by Henry Holt in the US and William Collins in the UK.

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