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Reading Matters

Instead of writing, I have been reading, getting through swathes of books and loving them. Here are some:

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Described as Burroughs’ “debut memoir” since he has recently published another that is a prequel to this, Running With Scissors is graphic, shocking, unputdownable and, according to some of the people who were there, not entirely true. It tells the story of what apparently happens when Burroughs’ mother, an unsuccessful and suicidal poet, hands her teenage son over to her psychiatrist to live in his spectacularly unconventional household that includes a paedophile who immediately starts a relationship with the boy. Die-hard Burroughs fans don’t seem to care whether RWS is memoir, creative nonfiction or pure fantasy, and I would have to say I agree. It reads like a novel, the characters are grotesquely fascinating, and Burroughs’ voice is an enticing admixture of knowing and innocent. If you enjoyed A Million Little Pieces and weren’t particularly bothered whether that was reality or part-fiction, you would find RWS fascinating. Like reality TV, it’s gruesome, but it’s hard to get up and switch it off.

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

Words fail me. Nothing I try to write does justice to the broad sweeping vision and forensic scrutiny that Ford applies to American suburbia in this novel. There isn’t a bad note; every paragraph contains jewels that seem to slip simply into the text without any indication of the sweat and work that must have gone into writing this book. To combine such a superb evocation of suburbia with such an empathetic writing of what it is to be a middle-aged man in America in the year 2000 makes Ford a master storyteller. On top of that it is funny, which I always like. I will now go backwards and read the first two parts of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. I just hope I won’t be disappointed. The Lay of the Land is up there with Half of a Yellow Sun as one of my books of 2008. It’s simply superb.

Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s memoir is evocative, yet slippery. The ghosts of the title are many: the children she is never able to have after her hysterectomy at 27; the long-dead parents and grandparents she left behind in northern England to move to London, the ghosts of herself in homes in England, Botswana and Jeddah. Houses are important in the memoir, as are the memories interred in them. For a couple of years, Mantel was actually a neighbour of mine in a converted lunatic asylum outside London, where she says visitors ask her if she is afraid of ghosts. No, she says, but she was a ghostlike and mysterious presence there, especially to an aspiring writer who would have liked to have trapped her in the car-park to talk books. Giving Up the Ghost is a moving read that focuses mostly on her northern Catholic childhood and her longterm suffering with endometriosis and depression. I was pleased to fill out the ghostly image of the neighbour I always fantasised about meeting, but still came away knowing little about her.

The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower

If stonking great historical novels are your thing, then this is the book for you. Set in England in the time of William the Conqueror, it focuses on a passionate love affair between William’s half brother Odo, a Bishop, and Gytha, one of the women working on the Bayeux tapestry. It’s fascinating, fun and lively. The dust jacket says The Needle in the Blood “is a powerful tale of sex, lies and embroidery”, which, following Victoria’s enthusiastic review on Eve’s Alexandria, was more than enough to sell it to me. Happily, it lived up to both its own and Victoria’s promise.

And now I’m about to settle down with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. How lucky am I?