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Posts tagged ‘McWilliam’

Review of 2015: Part 1

Our approach to reviewing the year, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is to look at what people have read in the last twelve months, as opposed to what was published during that time. So without further ado, here is the best of what our contributors managed to get through over the course of 2015.


Candia McWilliam

Young Eliot by Robert Crawford: A poet and scholar, Crawford, thinks himself into the growing mind and childhood  of the poet and scholar T.S Eliot, whom it has been all too easy to think of as one who arrived with assured celerity at some judicious “version” of middle age. A lovely book rich in fully inhabited detail that can only whet the reader’s appetite for the next volume.

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Surfing – and why surf ?-  put into words that just about convey the pointful pointlessness of sitting inside the little green room at the end of the curl of the wave, and in so doing, of writing, slippery words eluding you as you try to make standing upright among their tides and fathoms seem natural and easy.

The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times by Barbara Taylor. The account by a high achieving intellectual of utter breakdown and its redressing; and of changes in the treatment of such isolating mental pain,  with particularly attentive reference to Friern Barnett Hospital -now made into luxury apartments, while “care” has fallen into “the community “.

Step Aside, Pops! by Kate Beaton teases the culturally smug in elegant graphic form .

A Very Private Celebrity: The Nine Lives of John Freeman by Hugh Purcell.  Ignore the off-putting title. Anything is good that takes you back to Freeman,  who, in addition to being a soldier, a politician, a journalist, an intellectual and a diplomat, made some of the greatest ever telly, with his Face To Face interviews. Pleasingly, these interviews are often wreathed in smoke.

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie. The great poet of nature and its unharnessability by soppiness has asked of herself that she make a poem a week for a year.  Do read it;  nothing but the matter as it matters.

For pure sensual pleasure at the eye: Silent Beauties. Flower photographs made by the Dutchman Leendert Blok in the 1920s.

Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson . A curiosity and much more. Written by two authors (Adrian Clark and Jeremy Dronfield) which is somehow always a piquant, and inextricable poser for a reader. Watson was very beautiful, very rich, very generous and very intelligent. He was an enigma and exerts a forceful elegance beyond his grave, to which he was sent too soon by a jealous act of murder.

Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport-Hines. This book demonstrates its subject’s variform mighty intelligence (his Cambridge Tripos was Classics and Mathematics) and dares approach the emotional make-up and flowering of the great economist. A generous affecting energetic transfusion of a book.

My discoveries, amid the annually increasing re-reading, have been the works of the novelist, costume historian and very sharp opiner, Doris Langley Moore, who so loved Lord Byron that she arranged to marry him although he had been dead for more than a hundred years  .

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, a short novel, concrete yet poetic, irreversible, merciless as to the fate of a woman who is understood to have sinned.

The Black Mirror by Raymond Tallis. It is an investigation of the ubiquity of the idea and awareness and sense of death such that it intensifies our relish for, understanding of, and love of being alive and of -what is it? – life itself.


Hannah Joll

Howard’s End by E. M Forster. I started the year with this. Sisters, family, personal choices. I loved it and know I will reread later on down the line. The evocation of how it feels to fall in love with a family (the Wilcoxes) is brilliant.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. This made me want to read more by Robinson. It’s simple and graceful and quite ghostly/haunting for it. Lila the protagonist is a strange, innocent tomcat – an inspiration.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Murakami. ‘In each shave lies a philosophy’, so Murakami, quoting Somerset Maugham, opens a short book I read in one sitting. Murakami presents his choices, unusual as they are (such as running the original marathon to Athens backwards) plainly. There is something meditative about his orderly routines and the rhythm of his runs that suggests he knows his limits and emanates calm because of it.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Anger and reflection, restrained and channelled into this prose poem on casual, ubiquitous racism has made this book startling. Rankine describes multiple vignettes: the Tooting riots; the Williams sisters and the introduction of Hawkeye in tennis; her acquaintances’ lazy pronouncements on affirmative action. She does something very clever with narration and changing ‘you’ and ‘I’ to recreate the distance and alienation felt due to repeated racist acts.

Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante. Enough written on these elsewhere but I think that we are lucky to be alive when books such as these are being written: a paean to friendship; a dissection of violence in our characters, many things.

The best poem I’ve read this year by far is Paul Muldoon’s ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, it punches above ALL the weights: ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’.


Margot Gibbs


Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith: Originally recommended by Imogen Lloyd.  One of my favourite openings to a book ever, “Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says“. Delight in imagination, its silliness, the silliness of thoughts- whilst remaining serious at its heart; no poe-face. Lots of writing that talks about myth making and storytelling within the narrative makes me numb with boredom; this is completely alive. Some of the nicest writing on beauty and sex that I’ve read (on par if not better than Hollinghurst or maybe I just love gay books).

Elizabeth Costello, JM Coetzee: Novel dressed up as philosophical dialogue. A female novelist at the end of her life, interrogating her beliefs and the rationalist and humanist roots of modern thought. Easy to dislike at first for its self-consciousness, but it’s fantastically way too fleshy for that, and the most intellectually exciting book I’ve read for ages. Made me feel like a teenager.

This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein: I didn’t read it for ages because I thought I knew it, but when I read it I was like a new convert. Deeply historical, political and global. Links on well to her earlier work on the WTO and Shock Doctrine. First half arms you with every fact you ever wanted. Second half focuses on the small scale “barricades” being made by resistant communities but avoids sentimentalising. Her positive diagnosis comes naturally from the negative: localised politics are the way to defeat this brand of destructive capitalism.

Colonsay Book Festival (26-28 April 2013)

This tiny festival on an island in the Hebrides measuring eight miles long is fairly new. My father is head of the Catering Committee for the festival (he baked the bread for lunch and my mother made the soup. My sister-in-law made sandwiches. I ate all three.) On the afternoon of the second day there were three speakers on the stage of the Community Village Hall, the talks are summarized below in the order in which they appeared.

Candia McWilliam has spent a sizeable part of her life on Colonsay, and it was here that she wrote some of What To Look For In Winter: A Memoir In Blindness. I have written out below the extract she read aloud, as it is the ideal introduction to our Why Write series we hope to launch soon, and because it is both brilliant and true.

“I write because the work is real. It involves concentration and a study of life, which is all we have. I write because I want to help my parents out of their graves, she wherever she is, and he in the wall of Scottish heroes. I write because I cannot often express things face to face, being at once (or I was; we’ll see about that) performative and shy. I write because I don’t think most of my children are interested at the moment at what may interest them after I am dead, the half of themselves that will have been buried with their mother, but that lives in them. I write because I want to write more well. And better. And better. I write because I read, and they are my patriotisms and loyalties, reading and writing. I write because it is the act of glorification and gratitude to which I am most suited to take up my apprenticeship. I write in order to keep abreast of the swim of words and to hold the world – whose glory is, with its sadness, that it will not be held.

I write because I wake up, I fall short, I sleep, I wake.

I write because the world and all I love in it is forcing itself upon my attention and to pay attention is everything.

I write because words change one another when they lie together. Because words change things. They make people see.

Words can mend what is broken, or render it more interesting than mended. They can make people attend to one another.” (pp.479-480, Vintage Paperback)

Candia read aloud in an English sounding voice – she explained to the audience that though she is Scottish she does not sound it – and with such dancing humour that a story of serious weight is placed lightly in your hand, to savour, rather than clamped heavily down upon your brow.  In a game that circumvented game-playing, but simply celebrated the observation of semiotics and indeed Scotland, Candia read a short story with a message: the first letter of each paragraph spelled out a message for the keen listener. This would have tickled Nabokov and was enjoyable for us, though it left me feeling a little blunt of ear.

Maggie Fergusson then proceeded to introduce the subject of her biography, George Mackay Brown: A Life with images of the Orkney islands and readings from his poetry and prose.  Mackay Brown was a beautiful poet and a painfully shy man. Maggie’s self-deprecating account of how the book wrote itself after she was handed some love letters in Edinburgh Library does not give her meticulous research and lucid style enough credit. The account of her travelling to meet him at a time of year when Orkney is bathed in perpetual light, and a walk on the beach with Mackay Brown when his telling a story from his childhood was his way of signalling his approval for her to be his biographer was delivered in a quiet and moving way.

Here is a work for poets –
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence.

(from Following a Lark)

Finally, Ian Rankin gave a world premiere reading from his latest Rebus novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible which promises the usual dose of irony-laden exchanges in damp Edinburgh corners and Rebus providing his wheezy brand of revenge on behalf of abducted and mutilated women everywhere. Fans may be rubbing their paws together over around the world – my father is a quiet but dedicated fan – and Rankin created many more in the Village Hall that afternoon with his even delivery and jaunty responses to the audience. One example:

“Mr Rankin, I’ve not read your novels, but now that I’ve heard you speak I might start.” To which he responded “Well, that’s not really a question, but thanks.”

It is for exchanges like these we were lead to understand how unsettling authors must find literary events. Rankin pointed out that for the majority of the year, writers lead isolated lives with conversations held with their characters, before being yanked out of solitude and plunged into a forum where any question – however personal – can be lobbed at you without warning. The ability to take these and turn them into something that the entire audience can take home and turn over in their minds – to glean from and chip at should they wish to, that add to these books that were already of value to us, but now come with hidden extra parts, treasures exhumed for us kindly by the architect – is a gift these three showed the assembled company in Colonsay. I hope we all try to use it, and to remember at the next lecture or event, that this is how it can be.

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