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Posts tagged ‘Starritt’

Review of 2015: Part 2

The second instalment in our “best books read in 2015” series.


Charlotte Joll

The Poet’s Daughters by Katie Waldegrave…aka they fuck you up those famous Dads which might also be an appropriate comment on my second choice: Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes though her real (and possibly not unconnected) problem was being a HOPELESS picker of men.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Best depiction of what it’s like to have dementia – I learnt a lot more reading this than from Atol Gwande’s Being Mortal which I found banal as well as depressing (but perhaps that’s because the issues he deals with are all too familiar to anyone who works in the NHS).

Night Waking by Sarah Moss.  The modern v historical plot line doesn’t entirely work (Possession has spawned a great many imitations) but it’s brilliant on the simultaneous intense pleasure to be experienced from having and holding small children and the soul destroying boredom of being made to look after them when all you want to do is work or sleep.


Olivia Amory

The only books I have read this year which were published in 2015 have been the Ferrante novels, which I loved mostly because of the quick movement in the language and realistic portrayal of a female friend, and A Little Life which I feel I enjoyed despite my better nature.

I have also read Far From the Madding Crowd which I thought was wonderful but somehow took me a very long time and got rather confused with the film in my head and a couple of books about old men thinking about their lives (Stoner / Disgrace) which were moving but also remained quite distant from my own emotional life.

H is for Hawk which I thought could have been shorter. The Narrow Road to the Deep North which I have now turned against in my head for some reason but has made me want to read something about Australia. Now I look back it seems rather a depressing year!

But I did read and love both A Month in the Country by J. L Carr and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

I think I have become worse at reading books and don’t really like things that I find hard to relate to anymore. I’m reading Bonfire of the Vanities at the moment and everyone in it is so horrible, silly and unimportant that I can’t enjoy it at all. And why should I relation to Carr or Gibbon – I must have a rather warped, twee image of myself.

I think A Month in the Country is my best because it just gives you this very complete image in your mind, which is strictly limited both in terms of time (a month) and place (a church) that make the memory of reading it stay intact in your mind so that can look back on it with more satisfaction than most novels.


Anna-Jean Hughes

Co-founder of

Hands down my favourite has been a book of short stories called Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan. Can’t laud it hard enough.


Alexander Starritt

For me this year it’s been the revelation that is The Adventures of Augie March. I’ve never read a book so slowly in my life, at first because it’s so directionless (like Augie’s adventures), then because each page shows you your own heart with more understanding of it than you could ever hope to muster. One of the few books you would go to your grave more ignorantly for having never read. Plus the sentences are some of the finest and it’s sometimes very funny.

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.

Unpopular writers 2: Ayn Rand

A few anecdotes about the perception of probably the most virulently disliked fiction writer in English, Ayn Rand: 1) In Dirty Dancing, there is only really one actively unsympathetic character. Where Baby’s father just fails to understand his daughter or where the greasy and irascible hotel owner, Mr Kellerman, has a moment of pathos near the end when he realises that his life and hotel belong to a passing era, only one character is so two-dimensional as to be wholly without redeeming features: Robbie the waiter. He is on the other side of the class divide from Jonny Castle/Patrick Swayze and all the other dirty sexy, mambo-dancing entz staff, who are all kids from the block. Robbie is at Harvard Med, where that’s a sign not of talent of but privilege. He is the one who has knocked up Jonny’s friend and refuses to take responsibility, seeing it more or less as his droit de seigneur. Later on, he, the unrepenant Robbie, wants to compound his crimes by ‘doing it’ with Baby’s misguided and frankly awful sister. When Baby confronts him about his villainy, the unpsychological, hate-figure defence he gives is “Some people just don’t matter”. To provide a more comprehensive explanation, he offers her his copy of Rand’s The Fountainhead.

            2) Urban Dictionary defines Rand as “Mid-20th century pop-philosopher who first propounded objectivism in a set of rather poorly written cult novels of dubious quality. Her philosophy is founded on unremarkable restatements of the obvious, prizing material achievement, self-centred pride, and unfettered commerce as virtues over love, humility, generosity, and faithfulness. Followers of objectivism, called randroids, tend be a rude, selfish, condescending bunch, intolerant of anything that does not perfectly match their ultra-naturalist, laissez-faire dogmatism.

‘A=A, oh, yes, A=A,’ the randroid muttered again and again, softly, obsessively, as he cut out heart-shaped pictures of Ayn Rand from a magazine for his objectivist collage showing her to be the pinnacle of human evolution.”

Urban Dictionary also describes her as “a perennial favourite of the marginally intelligent.”

            3), online New York magazine, hipster Bible, sex-positive exemplum, home to the campaign that made Republican senator Rick Santorum’s first google-hit “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that can be a by-product of anal sex”, home to the “It Gets Better” campaign aimed at gay teens bullied in high school, forum for the idea of being “sex positive”, accepting chronicler of everything from vanilla dating experiences to where to buy and how to use a cast of your own penis to literally fuck yourself in the ass, this shining beacon all of that is right and ahead of the curve in today’s America, gives us the page Why Liking Ayn Rand Makes You A Terrible Lover. It mentions that Paul Ryan cites Rand as the reason he went into public service and starts a paragraph with, “I have to think that Ayn Rand must never have had any truly satisfying sex in her life.” It also quotes from profiles on the Randians’ dating website Atlasphere (named for her book Atlas Shrugged): “You should contact me if you are a skinny woman. If your words are a meaningful progression of concepts rather than a series of vocalizations induced by your spinal cord for the purpose of complementing my tone of voice,” and “I am rational, integrated, and effacious. So far, I’ve never met a person who lives up to the standard I hold for myself.”

            4) Holy running mates, Batman, Paul Ryan!

            5) In 1998, Modern Library, an American division of Random House, asked its editors to compile a list of the 100 best novels written in English. Everything you would expect the Americans to choose is on there, Ulysses, Gatsby, Lolita, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath. The following year, they published the results of a poll of 200,000 American readers. Best novel ever written in English: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Second best: The Fountainhead. In a top 10 that included To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984, Rand also took spots seven and eight, for Anthem and We The Living.

            6) I can easily remember the first two sentences of The Fountainhead, which should tell you a lot about what you should know of its style. No need to look them up, here they are: “Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff.”

Aside from being criticised as morally abhorrent and philosophically indefensible, Rand’s writing is also seen as pathetically transparent, wholly lacking in convincing characterisation or any kind of nuance. But characterisation isn’t the point, because the novel is an allegory of Howard Roark as the perfect human being. He is a young architect, exorbitantly talented, who refuses to play the games required by the industry, which wants more buildings in pseudo-classical styles, post offices with Corinthian columns or banks with Romanesque porticos. Roark wants modern buildings for the modern day, designed for perfect function and in marvellous juxtaposition with their surroundings. Despite every deprivation and attempted humiliation, Roark builds his buildings, and those with eyes to see gradually come to recognise his rightness. He is an embodiment of unwavering (and how inhuman that adjective is) resolve, self-belief, conviction, and, above all, the unshakeable knowledge that only he can sit in judgment on himself.

The high-point of the novel, apart, possibly, from when the evil newspaper magnate stands at the stern of his yacht in wonder at mankind’s brilliance in conquering the seas and throwing cables over continents and oceans, is when Roark is commissioned to build a Temple of the Human Spirit. This is what it looks like:

“The Temple was to be a small building of gray limestone. Its lines were horizontal, not the lines reaching to heaven, but the lines of the earth. It seemed to spread over the ground like arms outstretched at shoulder height. Palms down, in great silent acceptance. It did not cling to the soil and it did not crouch under the sky. It seemed to lift the earth, and its few vertical shafts pulled the sky down. It was scaled to human height in such a manner that it did not dwarf man, but stood as a setting that made his figure the only absolute, the gauge of perfection by which all dimensions were to be judged. When a man entered the temple, he would feel space molded around him, for him, as if it had waited for his entrance, to be completed. It was a joyous place, with the joy of exultation that must be quiet. It was a place where one would come to feel sinless and strong, to find the peace of spirit never granted save by one’s own glory. There was no ornamentation inside, except the graded projections of the walls, and the vast windows. The place was not sealed under vaults, but thrown open to the earth around it, to the trees, to the river, the sun and to the skyline of the city in the distance, the skyscrapers, the shape of man’s achievements on earth. At the end of the room, facing the entrance, with the city as background, stood the figure of a naked human body.”

For me, Rand’s writing oscillates between the exhilarating and the ludicrous. I wouldn’t like to live in a society built solely on rational self-interest and the worship of strength and achievement. It should, however, be axiomatic to state that the morality or the philosophy of the state needn’t be that of the individuals in it, that they serve different functions and are constructed for different reasons. But nor do I think I would particularly enjoy having Randian friends or lovers who would presumably start to disdain me after every moment of failure, sickness or doubt. So ultimately, this Randian exhilaration I do undeniably feel is internal and akin to the famous lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

  Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

  We are not now that strength which in old days

  Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

  One equal temper of heroic hearts,

  Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

What I mean really is a feeling. That though I strongly believe that societies and people when engaging with each other can’t justifiably be anything but kind, patient, understanding, forgiving and supportive, that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, I would like to reserve a circle of mental space in which to ask more of myself than being the subject of that attitude implies and, when I’m alone, to stand naked at the edge of a cliff, and laugh.

Alexander Starritt

4. Why Read?

There are many reasons for reading fiction, most of them bad. The worst is probably a sense of duty, the idea that somehow you ought to read fiction in a way that it isn’t so necessary to watch TV or listen to your iPod. Doing this, you gain nothing, bore yourself and mentally mangle things worth more than mangling. Almost as bad is reading in order to know what everyone else is talking about. You devote evening after evening to the latest winner of the Booker, Orange, Costa, Betty Trask, Somerset Maugham or whatever prize and come away feeling that you’ve never read anything since Pride and Prejudice in the Fifth Form. The ugly side of this coin is reading so as to have read more than the people around you. It only works because they feel guilty about not having read all the books they ought. If you want to bully your friends, there are less time-consuming ways of going about it.

Good reasons are pleasure, curiosity and trust in the book to create a new curiosity.

Those apply equally to much else, but fiction can do one thing others can’t. The writer of fiction can be able to have the kind of nebulous, historically determined collective unconscious of which each of us is a unique part – like a Venn diagram of billions – send its charge down through his pen and onto the page. Freud wrote that all of his theories were prefigured in the 19th-century novel, and it is habitual for discoveries or advances in the study of the human to appear in fiction first. For example, when the idea gains widespread acceptance that the language of therapy and the opening of the private sphere have become the traps they were intended to spring, people reading David Foster Wallace will ask themselves, hang on, when was this written? I don’t want to suggest that the writer is no more than an amanuensis. This charge is refracted by passing through his ego and it is his skill that draws an ever greater force down onto the page.

If you want to know that actually looks like, read fiction.

Alex Starritt