(Some of) The Best Books I’ve Ever Read

The Legend of Sander Grant by Marc Phillips

Every once in a while a book comes along that, almost without you realising, seeps into you until all you want to do is inhabit its world.  Work is pointless, eating is an inconvenience, and sleep is but an intermission.  The people between the covers are fictional, yes, but there’s something about them – an intensity, a keenness, and an unsettling quality to their lives that makes their reality, for those hours spent with them, more real than your own.  The Legend of Sander Grant is one such book.

Ostensibly, the story of cattle ranchers in East Texas, it is the tale of Sander Grant and his parents, Dalton and Jo.  Their lives revolve around the daily running of the ranch – breeding, branding, and rearing cattle to produce Grant beef, an industry passed from father to son in centuries-old tradition.  The work of the ranch is present throughout the book, but that is as much as the story has in common with that of any other ranching family.

Giants, Grant men have always married small women.  Ranchers for generations, they’re considered unremarkable – “Locals now remark on Sander Grant in the same way they do the August heat.  Like a mother tells her kids Jesus is love.  Sander is a giant.”

Unremarkable to the locals, perhaps, but their life is that of 50-stone men and a she-bear of a mother on speaking terms with god.  Not exactly easy with human interaction, the Grant men are most eloquent sitting on the hill talking to their buried ancestors.  While Jo remonstrates with god back home, they talk, mostly, of family legend and the running of the ranch.

But the men come from a time of Nephilim, vengeance, and a wrathful god.  Sander’s investigations into his past inspire his art, feed a hunger for meaning and explanation of his ancestry, and are a fascinating exploration of a Nephilim past.  But they anger god who, in a moment shocking in its violence, attacks Jo, her howl “that of a cornered panther; of pain so near madness that there was no difference”.

There is tremendous beauty and tenderness in the book and its rhythm is fairly gentle, making the sudden moments of violence and macabre imagery that break it – slaughtered cattle burning and the wedding dress of a dried corpse rotting under the red clay –all the more shocking.

It’s a book of subtle power.  Reviews compared it to John Irving and talked about magical realism, but I don’t think it need be seen in relation to other books or as an example of a particular literary genre.  It is a unique piece of writing: surprising, moving, provocative, funny, scholarly, thoughtful without ever being plodding, and captivating. The keenness of Phillips’ observations is felt and, with language that is lean and poetic, it draws you into the landscape of his characters and makes epic the ordinariness of their lives. Unselfconsciously extraordinary, it is a tale of ordinary lives with their joy at its most profound and the sorrow so raw it’s palpable.

This Is How It Happened by Jo Barrett

Wooed, adored, electrified, deceived and dumped by her fiancé, Carlton, Maddy’s mood is murderous.  And understandably so.  He’s a cad from the moment they meet, if she did but know it, but bedazzled by his beauty, romance, lustful sex, and a promise to marry her, Maddy sacrifices, forgives, excuses, and wilfully overlooks Carlton’s increasingly self-serving behaviour as he sweet-talks her into believing it is all, somehow, for her benefit.  She does his MBA assignments as well as her own; attempts manically to create a body as plasticised as Barbie, sans body hair or periods; and creates a company, giving him the position of CEO.  Then he ditches her, removing her from the company and leaving her with nothing but an STD to remember him by.

First she tries furniture polish-laced brownies but, unable to resist a few bites before throwing the tray of steaming chocolate out, succeeds only in poisoning herself and a raccoon.  Cyanide with which to lace his vodka is just too difficult to come by.  And the spell bought online from the California Astrology Association doesn’t even do so much as turn him into a toad.

With the help of her ex-drug-runner-turned-counsellor brother, she hires a hitman.  Not to kill Carlton, she promises – just to scare him.  There will be no blood.  It is acumen, Maddy decides, not her hitman’s Marlon Brando, that will hurt Carlton the most.  What she creates is a businesswoman’s guide to getting back at your man.

The book is surprising, compulsive, and very funny.  It’s a catalogue of what a woman will do, bedazzled by a deception she mistakes for love and a businesswoman’s guide to getting out of it.  It is also a phenomenon rarely seen in the male-dominated genre, a thriller with a female lead.  Barrett has brought to the genre, not the ditzy bit part or emotion-deficient cop to which female characters are usually consigned, but a woman with tremendous sass, intelligence, zaniness, and humour.  It’s a refreshing take on the genre – a witty parody and a tale of the sweetest revenge.

Senseless by Paul Golding

George is dying.  Despair and disintegration are consuming both his body and his sense of self, and his days are a greyed blur of sleeping pills and squalid self-absorption.  In moments of acuity he relates – in what begins in the most excruciatingly supercilious tone, but which thankfully matures, as does he – the circumstances by which he has become this doomed wretch.

Estranged from their parents and immersed in London’s 80s gay scene, George and his brother, Kelly, live a life of frenzied sex and frantic – though fleeting – love affairs.  Then Kelly tests positive for HIV.  Initially asymptomatic, he regards his newfound mortality as licence to abandon what little caution he may once have had.  He moves to New York to further a soaring financial career and sub-lets his flat to Matthew, an architect who later befriends George.

When Matthew is diagnosed with AIDS, George moves from gallivanting trust fund boy to carer, and nurses him through agonising drug trials, blindness, a farewell trip to Venice, and his eventual death.

Later, in the course of a feverishly sexual affair, George contracts HIV and is left alone to face his own death.

The book is not pretty.  What it is, is an achingly elegiac testament to a person loved and lost.  Believing that the manner in which Matthew dies is of equal significance as the way in which he has lived, George rebuffs consultants keen to officiously keep him alive.  The only way in which to read Golding’s account of the care that he proffers instead is to allow oneself to be enclosed in the claustrophobia and unending ache of its gut-wrenching tenderness.

But while he invokes the tragedy of once vital men reduced to cadavers, there is something in Golding’s book that verges on the homophobic.  His characters are so subsumed in their homosexuality that every element of their lives is measured in relation to it.  The result is that the book often reads like a litany of homosexual scenarios.  While there would be no purpose served in Golding hiding coyly behind such a euphemism as ‘homosexual practices’, just how relevant are repeated references to dark rooms, dungeons, insertion of surgical instruments into penises, felching, leather, fisting, orgies, nappy fetishists, and poppers?  The in-crowd of “hivvies” debating the best make-up to cover skin lesions and spurning those unaffected by the virus as pitifully inadequate men who have never truly ‘given’ themselves to another surely feeds into the notion that it is bravado and wilful ignorance that has caused the gay population to be so savagely decimated.  But if this is an honest account of the scene graphically rendered, does Golding seek to tease the reader into covert admiration and envy at lives of reckless sexual indulgence, or is he likely in actuality to confirm common prejudice?  Perhaps it is no more than straight-forward reportage.  He certainly does gay men no favours by refusing to credit them with even a single relationship that is not framed by incessant promiscuity.

Where Golding triumphs is in distilling the very essence of the little lives in all their emotional magnitude.  In face of the excess in which his characters indulge, there is an air of temperance to his writing – the restraint of understatement that is most vital to meriting a reader’s empathy.

The Confessions Of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer.

While sitting in a sandbox, at the grand old age of twelve, Max Tivoli begins to write his memoirs.  Scribbled in childish script and disguised as homework to prevent his adoptive mother and brother from reading them until after his death, they reveal an entanglement of emotional, mental, social, and biological deceit which he can only resolve through suicide.  Born in San Francisco in 1871 with a medical condition so rare few other cases are known, Max began life aged seventy and has gradually been growing younger.

Kept in isolation by his grandmother until the age of six, he is taken out after her death by his parents to a park where he meets Hughie.  The same age chronologically, Hughie never falters in his affection for Max and later resorts to suicide rather than live without him.

The axis upon which the narrative turns is Max’s love for Alice.  They first meet when she is fourteen and he seventeen: he falls in love with her and attempts to dissuade her from loving Hughie, but with Max’s outer appearance of a fifty-three year old man, she is repulsed by his advances.  Such is the overwhelming intensity of Max’s adoration of Alice he renders her image in exquisite portraiture and pens a novel-length eulogy in the most elegant and eloquent prose.  The scenario of a man’s secret desire for a girl – later a woman – whom he can never entirely possess does, of course, bring to mind Lolita.  Greer’s work is indeed resonant of Nabokov, but his protagonist somehow lacks the proprietorial craving for the creature with whom he so longs to be.  This can, at least in part, be attributed to his perception of himself as a monster: a creature dependent upon deceit if he is to achieve any sort of integration into the world in which he lives.

Twenty years later they meet again by chance:  she does not recognise him and he does not reveal his true identity, but unable to abate his obsession with her, determines to make her love and marry him.  Their marriage lasts several years during which time they have a son.  Alice appears not to notice Max growing ever younger, and it is not until she leaves him that he attempts to tell her the truth which she refuses to believe.  They do not meet again until he is twelve and apparently orphaned.  Ignorant of his identity she adopts him and he becomes son to his wife and brother to his son.

The novel is set in turn of the century San Francisco, presented in subtle and careful detail so that it does not appear especially dated or firmly encamped in the genre of historical fiction.  So engaging is Max and the characters who surround him that the placing of the novel does, in fact, feel almost incidental.

Though there is grandeur in his gestures toward both Alice and Hughie, they are rendered in prose as ethereal and delicate as his life.  Greer portrays the pathos and compassion of an individual in the rawest state of vulnerability.  Max’s heart explodes onto the page without recourse for a moment to anything other than the most brutal dissection of human emotion.

Confessions of Max Tivoli is a frequently alarming and invasive exploration of Max’s unending torment, and of those around him.  Entwined in Max’s narrative is his mother’s lifelong incomprehension of his father’s disappearance; Hughie’s marriage to another in an attempt to quell his homosexuality and love for Max; and Alice’s love for Hughie that she has concealed since her teens.  “We are all the love of someone’s life” begins the novel: it is a mesmerizing account of lives ravaged by love and longing written with literary flourish and subtle wit.

Love Without Resistance by Gilles Rozier

Gilles Rozier’s Love Without Resistance is a story of secrets.  In defiance of the demands of German-occupied France, the (rather irritatingly never named) narrator and his sister, Anne, infuse their abridged lives with forbidden pleasures, while others accede in silence.

Though he compliantly marries Claude, an ex-pupil, the narrator’s passion is for the German literature – both sanctioned and banned – that he keeps locked in the cellar.  He refuses to touch his wife whilst devouring every word of his books.  As a German teacher employed as a translator by the Gestapo he is given some immunity which he uses to rescue and hide Herman, a young Polish Jew who actualises the narrator’s lifelong fantasies of a Death In Venice pursuit.  Herman’s survival is dependent upon his compliance, yet it is the narrator who wishes to be controlled and humiliated throughout their affair: it is he who wants to taste the bitter soil of the cellar floor in his mouth.  When Claude commits suicide he acknowledges he has some part in it, but chooses to regard it, in the middle of the war as, “in rather bad taste”, and perhaps a present given by Claude enabling him to devote himself entirely to Herman.

Within weeks of the assassination of her Vichy-supporter husband, Anne begins an affair with Volker, an SS Officer.  It is an act for which she is raped after the Liberation and which the narrator finds both repulsive and erotic.  Though he hates Volker and leaves the house rather than hear Anne “being penetrated by the enemy, and proclaiming it out loud”, he imagines her “spread like a sow under Volker’s body” while he is forced to keep silent with Herman.

While their father is interned in Germany, their mother remains a silent figure in the household.  “A machine for swallowing reality and never bringing it up again”, she refuses to acknowledge her daughter’s lover and chooses to ignore her son’s predilection for illicit literature and sex.

Rozier has taken a tremendous risk by basing a love story on a character who is almost entirely unsympathetic.  It seems we are not supposed to like his narrator: a misogynist, self-obsessed and self-serving collaborator who appears to conduct his entire life based upon his own obsessions with apparent disregard for any repercussions.  However, the one crime that he does not commit is self-pity and this is what redeems him.  His life is saturated by tragedy, culminating in a hermitic existence spent waiting for the death that will free him from the tortured longing for Herman, yet he does not ask for the reader’s forgiveness, nor does he expect anything other than the harshest judgment of his actions.  He knows that his collaboration in both wartime and personal events is morally questionable – at times reprehensible – and he acknowledges this fact.  Rozier never once allows him to stray into the sentimentality with which it would be all too easy to create an entirely tragic figure.  There is something too fierce, too forceful about his prose that would – like the “violent orgasms” of the narrator – make a mockery of any attempts to excuse his actions in the hope of gaining the reader’s indulgence.  The resulting book is an astute observation of the ambiguity of wartime emotion and a departure from the comparatively clear-cut morality of peacetime.

An Irresponsible Age by Lavinia Greenlaw

From the start, the lives of Greenlaw’s characters carry a sense of foreboding.  Some are resolved, some are borne out, some remain as hints of tragedy yet to come, and others provide the book with a drawn-out, gradual descent into untenable situations.

In the wake of a bombing, the tragedy begins with the death of Tobias in a motorbike accident.  He leaves behind, his girlfriend, Mary, daughter, Bella, parents, and siblings Juliet, Clara, Carlo, and Fred.  Without explanation, the parents absent themselves from the lives of their children, returning briefly for an occasional phone call and to sell the family home.  Juliet, the main focus of the narrative, stumbles into a relationship with philosopher, Jacob.  Seemingly incapable of giving a straight answer to anything or making a single unassisted decision, he vacillates between adoration of Juliet and a slavish obedience to his wife, Barbara.  When Juliet leaves the dilapidated flat she shares with Fred to do a sabbatical in America for her PhD on “Framed Departure: the Empty Metaphor in Post-Iconoclastic Netherlandish Art” (the exact meaning of this title becomes no clearer on reading the book), Jacob follows her, staying until his mother dies, when he returns to England and his motherly wife.  Left alone, Juliet ambles through her days, contemplating American weather and landscape, until she meets Theo.  Refreshingly uncomplicated and considerate, he follows her back to England when her sabbatical ends.

Juliet’s siblings lead similarly complicated lives to which Greenlaw manages to bring gloom, even to the most joyous events.  Juliet’s continuing entanglement with Jacob encroaches upon her blossoming relationship with Theo.  Having rediscovered the artistic career she set aside while raising her children, Clara’s growing artistic reputation is surrounded by her dissatisfaction with her marriage.  Carlo gradually disappears into his medical career, allowing his relationship with his boyfriend, Jonathan, to inexplicably fade.  Seemingly on a whim, Fred abandons his impoverished, listless life, but his newfound vigour and wealth leave him bounding like a sprite around an empty house while everyone else moves on with their lives.  The tentative beginnings of Mary’s relationship with a man she meets at the station are overshadowed by her inability to deal with her past.  Conspicuously absent, is the experience of the parents.  They are referred to and occasionally discussed, but it would have been interesting to be given more insight into their lives.

Where Greenlaw succeeds is in her ability to create momentary, understated glimpses into her characters at their most private and unguarded.  Carlo’s unspoken instruction to the pathologist who will examine his brother’s body is an elegy to a lost loved one.  Clara and Jacob resist their attraction to one another, because they were “not wise or careful or good, just exhausted”.

Greenlaw also has a gift for surprising use of colour which, coupled with vivid descriptive detail, brings to the novel often dazzling imagery.  An ornately dressed woman appears like “a badly wrapped present”; attempting to speak after her second stroke, Jacob’s mother’s “jaw waggled, her mouth dropped open, her tongue flapped, her eyes watered and she gave a majestic caw”.

It’s not a book to cheer you up on a dark winter’s night, but it does bring moments of poetic grace to the experience of bereavement.

Be My Enemy by Christopher Brookmyre

Jaded hack, Jack Parlabane, has seen it all.  In a career as an investigative journalist, he’s received death threats, and been imprisoned and stabbed, so when he’s dispatched to McKinley Hall to spend a weekend doing team-building exercises courtesy of Ultimate Motivational Leisure he expects nothing more than an easy target for ridicule.  What he doesn’t expect is the transformation of seemingly innocuous, if irritating, pen-pushers into a band of assorted miscreants.  Pandemonium ensues as the death toll mounts and previously bland cuisine is inadvertently replaced with cannibalism.

Alive with all the devilment of the most mischievous satirist, this is Brookmyre at his best.  In what begins as a triumph of machismo swaggering, but quickly descends into men brought to their knees by nightmarish terror, nothing is left unscathed.  From “long-serving civil-service desk-jockeys” and conspiracy theorists, to leftists, rightists, and the purveyors of “silly corporate head-games”, everyone takes a battering from Brookmyre’s edgy, shrewd, and pitch black humour.

Ice Road by Gillian Slovo

Ravaged from within by Stalinist bureaucracy that has sanctioned the deaths of thousands, and isolated  by winter and the looming German invasion, 1930s Leningrad is a city under siege.  Weakened by hunger and cold, its people attempt to preserve something of the status and dignity they once possessed: a historian fakes a manuscript, re-writing a chapter of Georgian history in the hope of gaining Party favour; a wearied revolutionary watches his daughter marry an apparatchik to protect her and her child after her husband is killed in the purges; and a cleaner observes it all, afforded the invisibility to remain unpunished by the regime.

Slovo’s writing possesses a humbleness and instinct for the depiction of human emotion that does not falter.  It displays that oft-elusive quality in historical fiction of the melding of life and fact.  Her Russia is a world of lives structured and destroyed by grand politics and tiny betrayals; of people endangered by “that combination of personal volition and impersonal fate”.

A Book of Lives by Edwin Morgan

Every so often, a collection of poems comes along which warrants closing the door, leaving emails unread and the phone unanswered to read it from cover to cover.  Book of Lives is one such book.  As Scotland’s Makar, it’s pretty much expected that anything written by Edwin Morgan will be impressive, but this collection is far more than that.  Tremendous in scope, it rampages through the bloodshed and battlefield of Bannockburn; drifts with delight through “the blue glow of starlight lapislazuliing the dust-grains” of the big bang; flies alongside Sputnik; laughs at the poet squatting over a hole-in-the-ground train toilet; manages to make the Scottish Parliament splendid; and listens in on a conversation in Palestine.

Sorrowful, playful, teasing, funny, and yearning, Love and a Life, with its startling tales of the everyday, is the most moving.  Then, from the short and sweet Valentine Weather to the monumentally tragic Twin Towers, Morgan’s lives can almost be heard breathing as he brings to life their tales.  Rimbaud lies in agony, longing for Verlaine while “poetry burned in him like radium”; Darwin is delighted by finches in the Galapagos; the citizens of Leningrad starve in the siege; Morgan is overjoyed at the removal of scaffolding outside his flat; Boethius waits for death in prison; a cancerous cell and a normal cell, Gorgo and Beau, converse; and an old woman delights in Drambuie and a duet on her 94th birthday.

I recommend you shut the door on your own world and immerse yourself in his.

Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx

This is Annie Proulx’s second return to Wyoming, the setting of two previous collections of short stories.  The cast are, at once, familiar and fantastic.  The devil refurbishes hell, adding to the décor centuries of portraits by mortals; frisky female residents of a nursing home vie for “the favors of palsied men with beef jerky arms”; ranch hands and their families suffer hardship beyond endurance; and, bereft of children, a woman nurtures sagebrush.

Proulx’s writing is exhilarating and unflagging in its brilliance.  A mistress of chronicling the everyday, she transforms its mundanity into something fine that startles, unsettles, and enchants.  Though their setting is frequently bleak and tragic, the stories are also relaxing because they are faultless.  There is beauty, cruelty, absurdity, and humour in her stories, all presented with Proulx’s characteristic lack of hyperbole and with the confidence that befits a storyteller of the highest calibre.