Ten books

I was thinking last night about some of the stories which have meant a lot to me, and stayed with me, despite it being years since I had read them. I read most of these books between 1999 and 2005 – a hugely transformative time in my life where I moved out of my parent’s house, out of my home town, formed friendships which will last me a lifetime, and discovered the depth of my love of fiction.

I had always loved to read, but I was not adventurous. In 1999, with my new-found independence, I decided to buy books just because I liked the look of them. This is the sort of heady rebellion I liked to indulge in. The outcomes were varied, but largely I found a seam of contemporary literature which reinvigorated my creative self and led to the pursuit of my degree in 2003. The power of literature right there!

These are a few of my favourites from that time:

  1. I, the Divine – Rabih Alameddine
    This story, told entirely in first chapters, was a revelation to me. A structure which evokes the idea that the narrator can’t pin down how best to approach this complicated story. Many of these first chapters cover similar ground, but alter perspective and include or exclude details. It really awoke my interest in narrative structure, in the narrator (perceived author) having their own distinct voice, motivation and intent.
  2. The Memory Box – Margaret Forster
    I bought this book when I was 19. I still thought there were the right books to buy and the wrong ones, and I didn’t know which one I had. Until I read it. This was the right one. It was the moving, thought provoking journey of a woman trying to discover who she is from a box of memories left by her mother. It was probably the first book which made me cry. It was also, I expect, the first book I read where the main protagonist was abrasive and not always entirely likeable.
  3. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
    This epic tale was an early read for me, probably around 1998/99. I probably bought it because I loved the cover – I still do – and I make no apologies for that. If I, a designer, cannot read the visual signifiers on a book cover – put there by another designer – and from that deduce that the book is likely right up my street, than what chance does anyone else have? I digress. Whilst it might not have been my first encounter with a book which moved me to tears and laughter, this was probably one of the more moving books I read in my early twenties.
  4. The World’s Wife – Carol Ann Duffy
    Before she was Poet Laureate, I discovered Duffy. Again, I was under the impression that there were poets who you were supposed to read, and those you weren’t. (I don’t believe that now. If you like it, you should read it, preferably out load, and love it. If you don’t, that’s just not the voice for you.) It was 1999. I had a full time job but still £10 was a lot to spend on a book by a poet I had never previously heard of. But I loved it. The physical book is glorious and the content has become some of my favourite poetry ever. A number of years ago I met Carol Ann Duffy and she signed that book for me. It’s one of my most treasured things.
  5. Bridget Jones’ Diary – Helen Fielding
    Early on I found that ‘chick-lit’ was not for me. I read a number of books focused around a woman’s attempt to get and retain the romantic attentions of a man, probably because I had no intentions of getting and retaining the romantic attentions of a man myself and we do, after all, look for ourselves in the protagonists of the stories we enjoy. Bridget Jones’ Diary was, however, the best of the lot because it was genuinely funny, unique in structure. The others I read have not stuck with me, but there are parts of this book which have, especially Bridget’s fascination with Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy.
  6. Hood – Emma Donoghue
    This book had a huge impact on me. Firstly because it’s an honest, emotional record of grief – something I had not had much experience with – and secondly because that grief is felt by a woman who has lost her female partner, a relationship they kept relatively quiet, and she feels shut out of the usual grieving process because people don’t understand the true complexity of the relationship. Also, Donoghue is a fascinating story teller who remains one of my favourite authors.
  7. The Sea – John Banville
    This novel had a huge impact on me as a creative person. It’s more like a poem than a novel, the language is so exquisite, so pared back. It is beautiful study of grief and memory which blew my twenty-four year old mind. I often wonder about these books, all read and creating an impact on my life at a relatively young age, how would I respond to them now, fifteen years later? This one, in particular, I think I would read differently. The foundations of my research regarding the way we read are in this novel and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
  8. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
    This wasn’t the first Winterson novel I read, I had previously read Written on the Body and The Passion. It is not that I like this one any more or any less than the others, but I think it is the book which galvanised Winterson as my very favourite author. I am obsessed with her use of language, the ideas she explores. I think in finding a favourite author you are looking for someone who says the things you want said but in a way you would never be able to say them. This voice, for me, is Jeanette Winterson.
  9. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters
    Having read and loved both Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, I was so glad to get my greedy hands on the paperback of Fingersmith. I was a student at the time, I had time to waste reading chapter after chapter of my latest literary purchase (instead of doing the homework I should have been doing…). I immersed myself in the book. I loved it, it had the familiarity of Waters’ writing, and the period setting she favoured, but it was new! I read until the twist. Until the betrayal, and Sue Tinder being shipped off to the asylum. And then I felt so betrayed. I had trusted that the authorial voice was telling us what was, and the idea that plotting had gone on behind my back as well as Sue’s was shocking. I had to have a little break from the book before I resumed my reading, so betrayed did I feel. Obviously I was glad to have finished it, because it ended superbly. But for a little while I wasn’t sure I would.
  10. The Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby
    I love Nick’s non-fiction writing, this one is about books, and reading, and is definitely my favourite. Inspired by this, I will probably post a books to read/books read post from time to time.

Honourable mentions go to these books which didn’t quite make my top ten, but still really lovely, powerful books from around the same period in my life:

  • Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn
    This novel, unusual in format and cleverly written, documents the disintegration of a society through their relationship with a statue in their midst. As tiles fall from the statue, letters are outlawed from their language and communications have to be considered very carefully. It’s a ridiculous conceit, but the themes it explores, and the manner in which they are explored is fascinating.
  • All My Friends Are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufman
    This is the book I most frequently give as a gift to people. It’s brief, lovely, allegoric. If you haven’t read it, you should.
  • No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July
    From the mind of artist and film maker Miranda July, this collection of short stories is as vivid, colourful and bizarre as you could possibly hope.