The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
I read this first as a teenager; it was the first book that made me realise what language could do beyond the functional. The fact that each narrator has such a unique voice made me feel as though I was listening to a conversation, or sitting around a storytelling circle, rather than reading. It’s fair to say that this book influenced everything I read – and the way I read – thereafter.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light
Amazing prose, beautiful details of Tudor life, and a terrifying encounter with a glamorous but deluded king Henry VIII who slowly turns into a serial killer before our eyes. There’s remarkable empathy and intelligence in this depiction of Cromwell, who we never fully understand and who himself does awful things. If you want books to last you, these are the ones!
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, The Freezer Door (San Francisco: Semiotext(e), 2020).
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is a writer, activist, and self-proclaimed “genderqueer faggot and queen.” The Freezer Door is a memoir about coming of age at the peak of the AIDS crisis in 1990s San Francisco and trying to make it as a writer in Seattle in the early 2000s. It’s moving, painful, and very funny. If you’re interested in gender and sexual fluidity, literary experimentation, sexual experimentation, the capacity of language to imagine different ways of being, and the connections between all of these, then this is the book for you!
Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
A beautiful, visceral account of the life and death of Shakespeare’s eleven year old son, Hamnet, through the eyes of his mother Anne Hathaway. So unimportant is Shakespeare that he isn’t even named in the book, which becomes a wonderfully vivid, richly textured account of life in sixteenth century Stratford, but also of a very familiar passion between mother and son. The account of Hamnet’s death and burial is so painful you can only read it once – which is a great shame when the writing is as fine as this.
brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is a verse-novel memoir of a childhood recounted so vividly, that a past not shared by the reader is made available to them. Language is loved and lived in this beautiful book and I would recommend it to readers of all ages.
An Arab Melancholia
Abdellah Taïa is the first Arab writer to come out of the closet publicly, and An Arab Melancholia, translated from the French in 2012, shows us Abdellah himself moving between his hometown of Salé, in Morocco (where the famous pirates once came from!), Paris (where he now lives), and Cairo, as he searches for his identity as a queer Muslim man. Highly recommended reading for those interested in the intersection of anti-normative sexual orientations, migration, and faith.
Judge a book by its cover. “ain’t no tulip here. just a soft succulent.”
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) is a rollicking ride of speculative fiction, that guides us through an environmentally ravaged future world, inhabited by the mysterious Snowman (apparently the last human survivor of an apocalyptic plague unleashed by his best friend, the mad scientist Crake) and his efforts to care for a new species: the Crakers, creatures Crake has created as mankind’s evolutionary successors. Through helter-skelter flashbacks Atwood narrates the events that inevitably lead to disaster. It’s impressive that the novel was written in 2003 – in many ways, it’s prescient about many of our modern world’s ills, anxieties, and horrors – but it balances its disturbing themes with dark humour, satire, and hilarious wordplay – the apocalypse shouldn’t be this entertaining!
Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence
Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence is a buzzing YA novel that tackles the complexity of modern relationships. It is a story of adolescent romance – both touching and awkward – between brilliantly bold Indigo and warm-hearted muso Bailey. Lawrence also delves into wider themes of family and friendships, depicting experiences of foster care, homelessness, and class conflict with grace and humour. The novel really celebrates the diversity of ordinary teenage lives, as well as the city they live in. You can read it as a kind of funky love song to (pre-lockdown) London.
Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese term for things that are imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. This little treasure of a book considers the beauty of things modest and humble, and sheds light on how the overlooked details of our everyday lives can inform the natural, organic process of creativity.
Dustin Frazier Wood
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein
Like a lot of medievalists, it was reading The Lord of the Rings that turned me to a life of academia. For me Tolkien’s fantasy world is a world of languages, with echoes of Old English, Old Norse, Gothic, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and others too numerous to name. In many ways I feel like my life – as a student, as a researcher, and as a human being – has been shaped by a love of the sounds and shapes and musics of languages. It’s a love that was shared by my great-grandmother, whose box set is one of three in my collection (including with this one, of my husband’s well-thumbed paperbacks ).
Essays of Elia
Whenever I’m feeling anxious or unhappy, or can’t get to sleep at night, I always take down my uncle Wilf’s old copy of the Essays of Elia. Charles Lamb was the ultimate Londoner and his beautifully-written, charming portraits of literary and social life in eighteenth-century London always put me at ease again.
October, October by Katya Balen
This is a true gift of a book. The tale of a wild girl displaced from her woodland home told in soaring, surprising prose.
There’s a moment, towards the novel’s close, when October – the curious, bright protagonist, (whose favourite pastime is to search for hidden treasures in riverbeds) – describes her collection of Christmas presents: ‘And everything is perfectly chosen and it feels like each thing has been made especially for me… and it’s like if you could make me from a pile of things then it would be these things that built me.’
That’s how I feel about this book. Like it has been made especially for me. Like it contains the pile of things that built me: mudlarks, flotsam, forest libraries, fledgling owls and wild swimming holes. It’s a book about how stories are scavenged, and how hope can – no matter what – always be salvaged.
At the Bottom of the River, Jamaica Kincaid
Originally published in 1983, Antiguan-American novelist Jamaica Kincaid’s first book, At the Bottom of the River, is sometimes heralded as a precursor of flash fiction, but in many ways it has more in common with the prose poem. Eschewing narrative in favour of the quick image, its ten ‘stories’ also often make use of a propulsive repetition to give us impressionistic glimpses of the author’s Caribbean childhood: “I went to the country, the car broke down, I walked back; the boat sailed, the waves broke, the horizon tipped, the jetty grew small, the air stung, some heads bobbed, some handkerchiefs fluttered.” At just over 80 pages, less definitely leaves you wanting more!
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
13-year old Theo is caught up in an explosion at a New York art gallery and takes the opportunity to steal his favourite painting; as you might imagine this act has huge repercussions.
A Dickensian coming-of-age tale that reads like a popular thriller, it’s impossible not to cheer Theo on as he attempts to navigate adolescence and the international criminal art world at the same time. It’s also a story about the power of beautiful things and the endurance of love. As a scholar of nineteenth-century popular culture I love it for the way it both reminds me of Victorian novels and has all the qualities of a good boxset drama. Read in small chunks or binge in one go – it will make you long to walk around a museum again.
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