This is a New Year tradition at the Unthank School of Writing…
Slightly later than usual, I return to the school tradition of tutors listing five of their favourite reads of the previous year. This is not, you’ll recall, your standard list of the ‘best books’ of 2017, but rather simply what we’ve been reading for the first time, regardless of publication date, that we particularly liked. Let’s face it, does the world need another review of Lincoln in the Bardo, wonderful though it is, even if it is just Dostoyevsky’s ‘Bobok’ by other means, but then nothing’s new, is it?
When I compile a list like this, I always worry that I come across as someone who doesn’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. This is far from the truth. But if I said the books I enjoyed the most last year came off the Booker shortlist or were Amazon bestsellers I would be lying in an attempt to look hip and contemporary, and one of the luxuries of my job is that I don’t need to do this. Contemporary fiction is also work for me, because I appraise, edit, and even occasionally ghost-write twenty or so manuscripts a year. To be honest, when it comes to reading for pleasure I invariably reach for a graphic novel because my eyes and my brain can’t handle anything else of an evening although perversely I can’t stop reading. (My 2017 favourites were The Dark Knight: Master Race by Frank Miller, Bob Kirkman’s Here’s Negan, and Old Man Logan by Mark Millar.)
Last year, for me, was all about a big Victorian history project and, in common with the rest of the world, a sense of impending doom. And this is really what frames my Top Five. I started blogging for Wordsworth, once more returning to my academic roots with pieces on literature and history, and I was under contract to write a book called The 19th Century Underworld for Pen & Sword. The research for these gigs has been tremendous fun, with old friends revisited alongside new discoveries in specialised libraries and archives. The 19th Century Underworld is now with my editors, and I’m busily at work on the follow-up, which concerns the Newgate Controversy of 1839 and is sexily entitled The Man Who Outsold Dickens. So, this year I’ll be reading a lot of penny dreadfuls.
Anyway, in no particular order, here are my favourite reads of 2017…
The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969).
I got into this after my wife decreed we must work through Coppola’s epic trilogy on DVD, which she’d never seen. I enjoyed revisiting these movies so much that I didn’t want to leave the characters, so I pulled the novel off the shelf, a battered copy that belonged to my late-mother. I love the bestsellers of this era, and The Godfather belongs to a group that I remember as a kid that also included Jaws and The Exorcist, record-breakers accompanied by iconic movies, all written by journalists and all inspired by true stories. The Exorcist, for example, grew out of a real exorcism in Maryland in 1949, Jaws has its origins in the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, and in The Godfather the singer-turned-actor Johnny Fontane is based on Frank Sinatra, Moe Greene is essentially Bugsy Siegel, and Vito Corleone is a composite of Mafia kingpins Frank Costello and Carlo Gambino. Half-a-century on, these novels are still page-turners and any aspiring writer can do worse than study how they’re put together, and how history can be creatively adapted to form an original plot. The Godfather is a family saga and a tragedy. The novel pretty much covers the first two movies, while there is also a long story arc involving Johnny Fontane that didn’t make it into the screenplays but is nonetheless a compelling parallel to the rise and fall of Michael Corleone. The inter-linking stories are authentic and visceral, documenting the immigrant experience, the importance of family, the politics of violence, and the impossibility of escaping one’s own destiny. Every book, movie and TV series on organised crime in America released since owes something to this novel. Puzo didn’t just define the genre, he created it.
The Ups and Downs of Life by Edward Sellon (1867).
Of all the primary material I read for the ‘Underworld’ project that I’d not encountered before, this one really stood out, being by turns tragic, disturbing and extremely funny. Edward Sellon was a scholar, a soldier and a libertine of the old school who ended up writing and illustrating pornography for the notorious Victorian publisher William Dugdale. In his youth, Sellon was a subaltern in the East India Company Madras Infantry until they threw him out for conduct unbecoming. He authored a number of scholarly monographs on Indian culture, as well as some significant translations, but after a failed marriage and several unsuccessful business ventures he drifted into penny-a-lining. The Ups and Downs of Life is his final work; a rare, incomplete and filthy autobiographical fragment, ending mid-sentence, which Dugdale published anyway. The early sections in India are hilarious, as the Flashman-like hero dallies with the wives of officers and diplomats, escaping jealous husbands by disguising himself as female servants, and fighting a duel with a rival lover. Fast and funny, Sellon makes no apology for his wicked ways, although the story takes a darker tone once he’s married, largely, I suspect, because of his increasing sense of failure. His reputation finally collapsed completely when, while acting as a gentleman’s travelling companion, he seduced the mistress of his employer on the boat-train to Vienna while the affluent cuckold was asleep in the same carriage. ‘I made a desperate effort to throw her on the opposite seat,’ he wrote to Dugdale, ‘but it was no go, he had seen us.’ He returned to London destitute, took a room at Webb’s in Piccadilly, and shot himself with his service revolver. His suicide note concluded ‘Vivat Lingam/Non Resurgam’ – ‘Long live cock. I shall not rise again.’ Although outwardly ebullient, Sellon was a disappointed man who had reached the end of his tether. For all his faults, I can’t help feeling a certain affinity for the crazy bastard.
Brother in the Land by Robert Swindels (1984).
For obvious reasons I’ve lately been drawn more than usual to allegories of apocalypse. This is a genre I’ve always loved, and with a vague idea of trying to write one myself, I started working through a lot of old favourites like The War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids, The Death of Grass, Ape and Essence, 1984, Barefoot Gen, Maus, and Mad Max. Having terrified myself with Threads (a film I used to make my students sit through), I read the nonfiction book that probably inspired it, London After the Bomb by the LATB Study Group (1982), an academic report subtitled ‘What a nuclear attack really means.’ (Short version: the dead will envy the living – I suggested to Richard Littler at the time that it could’ve been a Scarfolk Council book.) This seemed like a good moment to pick up a cheap copy of Swindell’s masterpiece, a YA classic that traumatised a generation of schoolkids in the eighties, although not me because I was twenty when it came out and thus missed it completely. This book is amazing, and someone needs to make the movie NOW, although arguably Threads (also released in 1984) pretty much covered it. It’s the first-person account of a boy called Danny Lodge from the fictional northern town of Skipley, who survives a nuclear war and grows up in the ruins trying to protect his little brother. Like Threads, the novel is unremittingly bleak. What’s left of local government quickly establishes concentration camps; there’s cannibalism, the brutal Darwinism of post-apocalyptic survival, and even when a bunch of hippies manage to establish a farming commune nothing grows because the ground’s so irradiated. This is the best kind of YA writing: page-turning, sophisticated and honest, although a second edition added a happier ending that would clearly be impossible in reality. Everyone should read this, just to remember that nuclear war – so casually toyed with by world leaders nowadays – will never be survivable.
The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions edited by David Stuart Davies (2010).
I’m still devouring Edwardian ghost stories, although now I’m getting paid to write about them, which I think you’ll agree is a move forward. Oliver Onions (1873 – 1961) is one of those writers who got lost over time. He’s often cited as being an influence on H.P. Lovecraft, but when I looked into this there wasn’t a shred of evidence. This edition is by far the most comprehensive single collection of his short gothic fiction, comprising his anthologies Widdershins (1911), Ghosts in Daylight (1924), and The Painted Face (1929) as well as some uncollected and previously unpublished material. There is also the author’s fascinating ‘Credo’ (written in 1935), in which he explained that he was not interested in the ‘traditional apparatus’ of the ghost story, but of what he called ‘far subtler terrors.’
Onions’ stories are dense and elusive. The destructive nature of creativity is a recurring theme, one that the author frequently links to sexuality and its repression. In his best-known story, ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ (which opens the collection), a blocked writer in a rundown property trying to meet a vital deadline either goes slowly out of his mind, or is increasingly possessed by an unseen but jealous female spirit that is manifest only in the crackling sound of a woman’s hair being brushed. Onions was apparently inspired when listening to his wife, the popular novelist Berta Ruck, brushing her hair before bed in their cold, dark house in Hampstead shortly after their marriage. Berta was so disturbed by the finished story that she insisted on moving. Onions also responded to the trauma of the Great War. One of the most powerful stories in the collection is ‘The Rope in the Rafters,’ an early reference to plastic surgery in which a horribly disfigured veteran whose lover will no longer look at him is recast as a demon by superstitious countryfolk. That one’s been haunting me ever since I read it.
Trump is F*cking Crazy by Keith Olbermann (2017).
Subtitled ‘This is not a joke,’ this is a collection of essays on the subject of the 45th President of the United States adapted from Olbermann’s online broadcasts for GQ as a special correspondent, ‘The Closer’ and (after the election) ‘The Resistance.’ Olbermann is a familiar face in US broadcasting, moving unconventionally from sports reporting to political commentary, but he reached a new and global audience with his web series, holding the line for intelligent and confrontational journalism as the terrifying post-truth chaos of the Trump White House became the new normal and the mainstream media struggled to keep up. Writing and presenting two or three short monologues a week, reminiscent of the final opinion slot of his old MSNBC news show Countdown, Olbermann, working voluntarily and thus free of the constraints that got him fired from the big networks, said the stuff that you wish they’d say on CNN or the BBC but never do. ‘We have elected an idiot,’ he begins, and in a memorable piece on Trump’s speech at the CIA Headquarters: ‘At the CIA this weekend Trump told the agents there that he has, “A running war with the media.” He does not have a running war with the media. He has a running war with reality.’
Over the last eighteen months, I’ve found Olbermann’s sonorous broadcasts and social media presence extremely reassuring, and a welcome counter to the puerile propaganda of Breibart & co. An Ivy League man, Olbermann does not suffer fools gladly and a key theme in the book is that ‘democracy has survived less because of the hard work and dedication of people who are committed to its preservation, and more because of the unfailing and eternal stupidity of those who would destroy it.’ His journalism effortlessly combines impeccable research and cultural insight with gallows humour and moral outrage, like Carl Bernstein channelling Bill Hicks, while the broadcasts feel like desperate communications from occupied territory. He ended them abruptly in November, announcing, as Bob Mueller’s investigative team closed in, he was confident ‘this nightmare presidency will end prematurely and end soon,’ and listing seven scenarios inevitably leading to impeachment or resignation. Well, here’s hoping. Bereft after Olbermann’s retirement, I was delighted to read his book, which is written in the same crisp, deep and acerbic style as the original commentaries. While Michael Wolff’s masterpiece of access journalism, Fire and Fury, will undoubtedly be the book that defines the fall, it’s Olbermann’s elegant prose style that I’ll remember, assuming we all get through the next year in one piece. As he told the Washington Post, ‘If I ever see the mushroom cloud, at least I will not be sitting there thinking I didn’t do enough to try and stop it.’
So, there you have it. Of the fifty or so books I gutted last year that I’d not read before, these are the one’s that really stayed with me. If we do this again next year, I’ll try and slip a couple of contemporary novels, I promise.
Happy New Year!