Towards the end of 2016, I came across this Book Challenge, created by Twitter user @belinda_missen, as it made its way around Facebook:
I decided to have a go, thinking that it might get me reading more books from outside of my usual interests (heavily slanted towards travel writing). I decided that I wasn’t allowed to re-read anything I had read before, unless specifically required to do so: this is how I ended up reading an unfinished work for my Jane Austen book, for example.
As I came closer to the end of the year, I realised I was probably not going to finish it, and then life got complicated (for welcome reasons) in December, meaning that I ended up doing very little reading at all. I do intend to finish it in 2018; for now, however, these are the Book Challenge books that I have read this year …
Read a classic Austen: Jane Austen, Sanditon
Jane Austen’s final, unfinished novel.
Read a non-fiction book: Ron Jonson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Journalistic book about the rights and wrongs of the use of the Internet for public shaming.
Read a non-white male author: Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia
This wasn’t originally going to be part of the Book Challenge at all. But one day when I was doing some research on the British Library website, I drifted onto an introduction, by the novelist Zadie Smith, to Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which made the book sound very much like something I would like to read. I found the earlier part of the novel more enjoyable, probably because the narrator was more likeable as a teenager. But the whole thing was funny, thought-provoking, raises questions about racial relations without, as Smith argues, offering any simple answers, and was a very readable depiction of life in suburbia and in the London drama world of the 1970s.
Read a non-white female author: Shami Chakrabarti, On Liberty
Short book about human rights and the law by the director of Liberty.
Read a book you read in high school: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
I enjoyed this very much when I read it for school when I was seventeen, especially for the detail and lushness of Fitzgerald’s descriptions. Maybe I rushed it too much this time, but somehow The Great Gatsby didn’t grab me as much this time around. In particular, I was struck by the brevity of the time period over which the events described seemed to take place, which made Nick’s attachment to Gatsby less convincing. Or maybe I have misunderstood?
Read a young adult book: John Green, The Fault in our Stars
Recent bestselling novel about two teenage cancer patients in love, brought closer by a favourite novel, a trip to Amsterdam, and a grumpy author.
Read a retelling of a classic: Jacqueline Wilson, Katy
Do you know what it’s like to randomly bump into a childhood friend, having barely seen them for years, only to discover that not only are they just as lovely as they always used to be, but they are now doing really well for themselves? Reading Katy, one of my great discoveries of the year, was like that. Jacqueline Wilson, the famous children’s author, has transposed Susan Coolidge’s novel What Katy Did from the nineteenth-century American Midwest to twenty-first century Britain, thoughtfully translating every character and situation into their new setting in a way that not only replicates but also enhances the original; so Katy’s detested Aunt Izzie becomes her stepmother, and her sister Elsie her younger stepsister, giving a deeper explanation for Izzie’s fondness for the younger girl and Katy’s dislike of her. Every one of Coolidge’s characters is exactly as you would expect them to be if they were transplanted to the modern day, even down to minor ones such as the chic but prissy Imogen Clark. And Katy’s Cousin Helen – loving, vivacious, so utterly interested in the people around her – is positively flourishing in her new setting. And now she’s an academic …
Read a book based on a fairy tale: Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
Well, technically this is based on several fairy tales! I had never read anything by Angela Carter before, despite having at least one friend who is very keen on her work, but I really loved this. Although I couldn’t recognise a specific source for all of the stories, this book rewrites tales such as Bluebeard in a nineteenth- or twentieth-century setting, with lush descriptions of the characters’ opulent surroundings, contrasting with the horrors that threaten them.
Read a biography/autobiography: David Lodge, Quite a Good Time to be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975
The first volume of the autobiography of one of my favourite novelists
Read a graphic novel: Art Spiegelman, Maus, A Survivor’s Tale. Vol. 1: My Father Bleeds History
I had been intrigued by this and meant to read it for years; the Book Challenge just gave me the impetus. This is the first in a series of graphic novels based on the author’s father’s memories of being Jewish in Nazi-era Poland, this volume beginning with the meeting of the author’s parents up until their arrival at Auschwitz. Spiegelman draws the Jews as mice hunted by Nazi cats, a metaphor that I felt broke down at one point when the characters are hiding in a cellar and disgusted by an actual mouse scuttling across the floor. Nevertheless, this was a very detailed depiction of life in Poland at a time when Jewish life progressively became more and more imperilled – and also of the effect that this trauma had on the survivors, many decades later, in America.
Read a translation: Jostein Gaarder, The World According to Anna (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett)
I have enjoyed Jostein Gaarder’s books ever since I read Sophie’s World at the age of eighteen, although I sometimes feel that his ideas are better than his narrative style. This one is a timeslip tale about climate change, in which the Anna of the title has glimpses into a Norway of the future, in which refugees from hotter parts of the world ride northwards on camels and plants have to be pollinated by hand. Considering what a thoughtful, imaginative book this was, Anna’s solution to the environmental problems that she foresees is surprisingly simple, and I ended up feeling just a little bit let down.
Read a book set in my country: Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake
I had had this one on my shelf for a while before the Book Challenge motivated me to open it up, and I’m very glad it did. I’ve blogged about this elsewhere, but, in a nutshell, this is the story of a proud, desperate man living through the Norman Conquest of England, written in a ‘shadow tongue’ partly based on and intended to evoke Old English. I felt that this mostly works, if you are prepared to take it for what it is: not exactly Old English, but something which feels like it. That said, some of Kingsnorth’s choices for the language were hard to justify. I was also a bit doubtful about the portrayal of paganism and Christianity in late eleventh-century England. Still, the story itself genuinely gripped me, ending with a revelation about a character that I had been wondering about, and which truly shocked me.
Read a book published in 2017: Michael Haag, The Durrells of Corfu
A short biography of Gerald Durrell, author of My Family and Other Animals, and his family, centred on their years living in Corfu.
Read a book by an author of the same age as you: Zhang Yueran, The Memory Bird
I started out by googling for writers with the same birth year as my own, and came across a blogpost about two up-and-coming Chinese authors, including Zhang Yueran. One of her novels was in the university library, so I decided to give it a try. The Memory Bird is strange and beautiful, partly because little in the text roots it in any one historical period (according to the blurb, it is set in the fifteenth century), but also because the narrator takes for granted the basic premise of the book: that seashells, when polished to perfection, will give up the lost memories that they hold. It is a story about characters suffering not only from loss of memory, but also from obsessions: Xiao Xing, the main narrator, begins as a likeable child, but once his own obsession takes root he is terrible to his wife – and what the hell did I just read in the bit about the cat?!
Read a book of short stories: Emma Donoghue, The Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits
By the author of the excellent Room, one of my favourite recent novels, this is a collection of short stories based on historical events in Ireland and Britain.
Read a classic Brontë: Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey
Anne Brontë’s first novel, about a governess living and loving in trying circumstances.
Read a book by or about a person who identifies as transgender: Jan Morris, A Writer’s World: Travels 1950-2000
I am an avid reader of travel writing. In fact, I probably read more of this genre than of any other, mostly light, comic works based around some unusual premise or another (Around Britain on a Pogo Stick, Across the Sahara in a Pedalo, etc.) For all this, I have read surprisingly little of the more famous practitioners of the genre, and have long intended to fill this gap; so the 2017 Book Challenge allowed me to kill two birds with one stone. A Writer’s World is a compilation of brief reports from all over the world, originally appearing in newspapers such as The Times under the name of James Morris and, from the 1970s onwards, of Jan Morris. The collection covers a pleasingly wide range of destinations from around the world, and has a lot to say, often unintentionally, about how they changed over the course of half a century. In my view, Morris is too preoccupied with the search for the essential spirit or character of a city or country, rather than simply recording her observations and letting them be, which is what I consider to be more important in travel writing. But I still enjoyed the book a great deal and will look out for more of Morris’s work in future.
Read a 20th century classic: Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Well, it didn’t say it had to be a classic work of fiction! I have been meaning to read the first of Angelou’s autobiographies for years. I am still about two-thirds of the way through this one, and I don’t altogether know what the book will conclude about her early family relationships and traumatic experiences, or how it will set the stage for Angelou’s later books about her work in the black civil rights movement. I do, however, think that I would like to continue reading the series after I finish the first volume.
Read a book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with: Hassan Blasim, The Iraqi Christ
This little collection of short stories, the recipient of an English PEN Writers in Translation Award, was originally going to be my book by a non-white male author, and could have been my collection of short stories, but it ended up going under this category. Within a relatively short number of pages, it managed to be fun, tragic, surreal, and above all very inventive; it constantly kept me guessing. One story rambled on for pages until I was brought up short, the narrator was actually a – but I won’t spoil it for you. Read it yourself!
I still have a number of categories left to complete, and I do mean to do so in 2018. I’m also planning my own book challenge specific to the new year – but this time with my own categories, and fewer of them, too!