Recommendations for book groups
Stoner, John Williams
‘But nothing happens!’ moaned one member of my book group, The Vicious Circle.
‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘If you want murders and mayhem, blatant sex, the machinations of powerful politicians, or non-stop adrenalin-driven action, Stoner is not your novel.’
Stoner is, in essence, the unremarkable story of an ordinary man. The son of a Missouri farmer, born in at the end of the 19th century, William Stoner has faults, but he’s no Crippen; there are elements of tragedy, but this is no Lear. And, lest you be misled by the title, there’s not a whiff of drug-taking throughout. I’d even argue some of the characters border on caricature (Stoner’s parents, his wife), and take issue with the gushing reviews claiming this is brilliantly written, stylistically without fault. It’s full of telling not showing, it takes a quarter of the novel to get going, and even after that it goes into detail about literary criticism that comes perilously close to dull – and yet it was fantastic. William Stoner’s life story is one that grabs you by stealth. There’s just enough to keep you reading for the first 50 pages, and soon after that, you’ll find you can’t put it down. Read it, and weep.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
This autobiographical graphic novel gave me more insight into Iran and the Islamic Revolution than a dozen worthier tomes. The illustrations are a delight and it manages to
be personal, political, funny and touching all at the same time. Everyone in my book group loved it.
How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
I’ve a decade on Caitin and grew up with the feminist debate raging about mine ears. For a while before reading this I’d been sighing heavily at how feminism seemed to have fallen off the cultural radar – no one seemed to be talking about it any more, let alone calling themselves a feminist. And then in marched Ms Moran, putting the debate about what it means to be a woman in the 21st century not just back on the agenda, but in the non-fiction top 10. Hoo-blooming-ray! Be warned: there’s heaps about this book that’s annoying. The incessant CAPITAL LETTERS. The surfeit of screamers. Initially I felt like I was being shouted at, that the jokes weren’t all funny, and this was a memoir masquerading as polemic. But unlike other reviewers who thought it petered out, I warmed to How to Be a Woman hugely. The writing seemed to calm down, become less personal, more thoughtful. So by the end I was converted – as were the rest of my book group. Shortly after finishing it, I went to buy a copy for my teenage goddaughter. She told me her ambition was to ‘get married and go to parties’ (presumably not in that order). So I hiked her by her beautiful long hair to the nearest bookshop and thrust a copy into her perfectly manicured hand. ‘Read this,’ I said. ‘It’s funny’. She may not agree with all or even any of it. But I think she’s much more likely to actually read it than Germaine Greer or Simone de Beauvoir, and if it makes her think – just a bit – then I’ll be pleased. And if she gains just a smidge more ambition, I’ll be cockahoop. So if your book group has never read a book on feminism, I suggest you all read this one. And if you’ve read a few, read it too. It’s contemporary, strident and wise. You’ll also have a laugh, and crikey, there are a lot worse ways to spend your time.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Gone Girl is an atmospheric and compelling psychological thriller, full of twists. The set-up and structure, where the story is told by a husband and wife in different time frames, is clever, and the characterization of husband Nick in particular is strong. Lots of readers have enjoyed it hugely – 2/3 of my own book group fell into this category – but I had reservations. Here’s why: firstly, the writing style, which many have raved about. I suggest reading a sample to make your own judgement call. If you like it, you’ll like Flynn’s style – I found it wordy and cloying. Then, there’s the plot. This is a novel of two halves, and whilst the second half rips along at a fast pace, once the first twist has been revealed, I simply didn’t find the story credible. I saw the initial twist coming, which didn’t matter hugely, but I kept finding it impossible to suspend disbelief and believe in the characters’ motivations or behaviour. My main issue was Amy, though by the end Nick seemed puppet-like too – his strings pulled around by the author from on high to keep us guessing. Finally, the one crucial thing a thriller has to deliver when the story is what drives it is a decent ending and Gone Girl’s ‘finale’ is disappointing. Nonetheless, I’d still recommend it for a reading group. It’ll stimulate a hot debate – far more fun than when everyone agrees about a book – and it’s for this reason that although Gone Girl was not to my taste, I am still very glad that I read it.
Books I enjoyed recently
A Streetcat Named Bob, James Bowen
Please don’t think me churlish, but because this is a book review, not a review of James Bowen, Bob the cat or their achievements, I’ll kick off by saying this tome is not well crafted – it’s repetitive and poorly copy edited. Thus, if you’re snobby about writing, look elsewhere. That said, it’ll be your loss, as it is a heartwarming tale with an important message, for reasons other than its prose. Bowen describes how he was ‘invisible’ when he was homeless, and the difference it made when he found Bob and took him busking with him. Suddenly people saw James, interacted with him, respected him. Having Bob humanised the man who was with him, and helped James turn his life around. It echoes why this book matters: were it entitled ‘A Man Named James’ I doubt it would be published, let alone topped the bestseller charts. I’m a cat lover (here’s ours, left), so it was Bob that made me gravitate to the story, and I’m sure I’m not alone (he is a particularly fine feline for all sorts of reasons) but
there’s so much more to this than fluff: through telling us about Bob, James is also able to share what it’s like living on the streets, to busk, to sell the Big Issue and to come off drugs – all things most of us would otherwise shy away from reading about. James Bowen isn’t a writer, and he acknowledges that he had help in putting his story together. But whilst A Streetcat Named Bob might not be great literature, it increases our understanding of people who often don’t have a voice, and for that deserves its success.
Brock, Anthony McGowan
I bought ‘Brock’ for my nephew (he’s a McGowan fan) and when it arrived, it looked so very pleasing with its attractive cover and illustrated page design, I couldn’t resist a sneaky peek. Well, the book might look glossy, but it certainly doesn’t gloss over its subject matter: the story of Nicky’s fight to save local badgers from destruction deals with big themes. Injustice and violence, love and understanding; it’s rare a book is so sparely written, yet covers such broad emotional terrain. It’s published under a ‘Teen’ label, but it’s a story that will touch readers of all ages, and would make a great gift.
A handful of classics
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
This was one of the first adult novels I read, and I’ll never forget arriving at the twist – my teenage heart jumped, and then continued thumping at a furious rate until I finished the book several hours later. The suspense, the atmosphere, the expressive writing style – I’m hard pushed to think of a better storyteller than du Maurier; that’s her strength and it’s often underrated.
After You’d Gone, Maggie O’Farrell
I love how Maggie O’Farrell writes – her metaphors and descriptions are so lyrical, she’s like a poet – and the way she weaves different times, places and perspectives together to create a whole is impressive without being tiresomely literary. She also keeps you wanting to turn the pages. Reading her after I’d had my first novel published was an inspiration to me, and made me want to raise the bar for my own writing. My favourite is this, her first novel.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Winifred Watson
Like a large slice of cake on a cold winter’s day, this is an utterly delicious tale to be devoured in one sitting. When nanny Miss Pettigrew is sent to the wrong address by her employment agency, instead of a household of fractious children, she finds a glamorous young woman of slightly dubious morals. How she deals with pressing problems from cocaine in the bathroom to a jealous lover had me hooting with laughter.
Enduring Love, Ian McEwan
The opening chapter describing a freak ballooning accident is arguably the best start to a novel in contemporary fiction; no one writes about arbitrary nightmares quite like McEwan and this psychological thriller about love and obsession is to my mind his best novel.
Books on mental health
The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz
Distilling decades of therapeutic work into a slim volume that reads like a collection of short stories, Grosz offers an intriguing insight into contemporary psychoanalysis. A married father-of-four announces that he is thinking of coming out, aged 71, while a woman who has just celebrated her 50th birthday realises a sexy dream that bothered her was about her son. Anger, self-delusion, lying, being stuck – Grosz even shows how boredom is worth thinking about. He draws not just on his patients, but literature too – Scrooge shows us how we can’t live a life without loss, a Herman Melville character reveals how `we all have a cheering voice that says “let us start now, right away”‘ and an opposing, negative voice that responds “I would prefer not to.”‘ But the real joy of this book is that all this is done with such a light touch. It avoids jargon, and to have made complex theories so easy to understand is a remarkable achievement.
Sane New World, Ruby Wax
If you’ve not encountered how mindfulness techniques can help with depression before, this book is a good place to start. It explains the concepts simply and wittily, and provides useful exercises at the end to help put the theory into practice.
I found the second chapter – ‘For the Normal-Mad’ – superfluous but still I’d recommend the book overall, especially if you’re down. The short chapters make it easy to digest when concentration is poor (often a side effect of depression) and Ruby’s willingness to expose her own vulnerabilities makes it feel as if you’re in the company of a good friend as you read.
There are, it’s true, other more fulsome books on mindfulness out there (I’d recommend The Mindful Way through Depression by Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn if it’s detail you’re after) and there are more searing accounts of going through breakdown too (Shoot The Damn Dog and Sunbathing in the Rain – see below – as two of the best I’ve come across) but they don’t detract from this book, which, as a cross between the two genres (part self-help tome, part memoir), aims to do something different.
Moreover, because Ruby Wax is a household name, there’s every chance Sane New World will find its way into the hands of people who might not otherwise read about depression, and that can be no bad thing. I have enormous respect for Ruby and admire what she’s done (and continues to do) to raise awareness of mental illness. That takes even greater courage than stand-up comedy, and I’m sure I’m not alone in being grateful for your bravery.
Sunbathing in the Rain, Gwyneth Lewis
Firstly, let me be clear: there is heaps about this book which is wonderful – the practical hints, the tone of voice and language, the short digestible paragraphs, and many, many of the insights. So I would not wish to put anyone off reading it at all. I found it sympathetic and uplifting, which, when you’re in the throws of depression, are sensations you want to hold onto for as long as you can. Because one of the most painful aspects of depression is the cycle of self loathing, the notion that depressions are learning experiences is extremely useful. When you’re beating yourself up endlessly, this suggestion is a breath of fresh air, and the book should be read for that reason alone.
However to my mind there is one omission – it fails to take account of the enormous and real pressure many, many sufferers find themselves under to get well in a specific time frame in order to earn money and continue working. This can mean the cycle of depression is much harder to break, as not very many of us are able to take two years ‘out’ and just be. Unless I missed something, Lewis never mentions this need to earn one’s keep. I can only assume she had some kind of outside financial support, masses of savings or a very sympathetic employer. She certainly has an incredibly supportive partner, and many sufferers are not blessed with one of those either. So in this regard she is fortunate and for some readers in the throws of depression her experience might seem at one remove from their own.
My conclusion: read it, please. But do so alongside Sally Brampton’s Shoot the Damn Dog. Brampton’s personal experience of depression was deeper and more agonised. Tragically, she died in 2016.
Other recommended books on mental health
A Mindful Way through Depression, Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Depressive Illness, The Curse of the Strong, Dr Tim Cantopher
The Unquiet Mind, A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison
Shoot the Damn Dog, Sally Brampton