Caught by the River

This summer, I will mostly be reading…

10th July 2018

This summer I will be reading Deborah Levy’s memoir The Cost of Living, the follow-up to her sublime Things I Don’t Want to Know, perhaps one of the finest pieces of writing I have read this year. Levy really is one of our greatest living writers and it is always a delight to feast on her flawless prose. I have recently started Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, a warm and hilarious portrait of family life – poetry runs through each page and her bubbling dialogue brings the characters and scenes to life. It’s a book I will be buying for many people.

Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry’s sensitive non-fiction account of the survivors of 2011’s Japanese earthquake, is a book I have frequently returned to over the past few months. It tells the story of a community that was decimated by the wave, the ghosts and hauntings of spirits in the village, and is told through personal accounts of those that lived through the tragedy.

The Tower of Babel book-pile beside my bed contains around 30 titles, which I will slowly chew through over the next few months. Françoise Sagan’s back catalogue (bought for £4 from a bookshop by the River Wye), Ostessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, Modern Poetry in Translation (Mother Tongues), Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country and Ian Hamilton’s The Trouble with Money are all awaiting further investigation.

I’m just starting work on my second book, which will take its inspiration from my hero, Charles Darwin. So I plan to read loads of books by and about the gentle genius this summer: earthworms, orchids, and insectivorous plants will feature prominently. A review copy of Katrina van Grouw’s magnificently illustrated Unnatural Selection currently beckons from my coffee table. I’ll also be diving into Benjamin Myers’ Under the Rock, set just across the valley from me, and Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley.

Given the extended hot dry start to this summer, and having just come in from watering a garden that is starting to resemble the Serengetti, I am starting my reading list off with my now slightly dog-eared copy of Rain by Melissa Harrison. There’s a power to the usual that is often lost in the chasing of the new and exciting. I will once more read Mel’s words and get lost in the cool feel of Rain on my face.

Talking of re-reading books, I have a dusty copy of Rod and Line by Arthur Ransome on my bedside table and that’s next.

Then looking forward, there is a new longform fly fishing magazine launching in September by the name of Fly Culture. I’m very much hoping that this can add to my very limited list of angling magazines that are actually worth reading.

This summer, I will mostly be reading…Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read anything by Taylor, something I’ve long been meaning to put right; a piece in Slightly Foxed gave me the impetus I needed to order her 1951 novel from the mobile library van that calls at my Suffolk village once a month. I can’t wait to get my hands on an advance proof of Paraic O’Donnell’s rich and spooky The House on Vesper Sands (out October). I read it at an early stage and loved it, but I know it’s changed quite a bit since then and I’m really looking forward to finding out what form it’s taken. Paraic’s a fantastic writer; if you haven’t read his work yet, now’s the time. It’s going to be a busy summer for me, with lots of train travel, which I’m hoping will give me the time to catch up on various things I missed when they came out, like Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under; I really liked her debut, Fen. Finally, I devoured Tracey Thorn’s wonderful Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia the second it dropped through my letterbox in July; I’m looking forward to going back for another, more leisurely read. As a fellow ex-suburban teen it had me wincing and grimacing and laughing in horrified recognition, and left me feeling a bit kinder towards my pretentious, frustrated, vulnerable younger self – and towards my poor parents, too!

Perhaps D. H. Lawrence will be preferred in the future as a writer of poems, of letters, of essays and of travel books. I’ve a feeling his novels are not hitting the spot right now. We’ll see. Meanwhile the travel writing is good. He was a grumpy wayfarer – his books are full of bad hotels and failed transports and incomprehensible strangers, but they are also lit up by the challenging novelties he found as he went and the self-challenging depth of his own perceptions. Lawrence was alive to other worlds like few others of his time or since.

Sea and Sardinia records just one trip of a couple of weeks, Etruscan Places is mostly wrong about the pre-Roman Italians, Twilight in Italy is a barely muted account of the runaway journey Lawrence and his new partner, Frieda Weekley, took across the Alps towards the warm south – but each is thick with lively brilliance: original thinking about places and people and idiosyncratic but telling observations superbly captured.

The books are fun and still have much to say. One day on that journey from Austria into northern Italy, Lawrence left Frieda to go botanising, as he was wont, for Alpine meadow flowers. He is, to my mind, the greatest of English imaginative writers when it comes to flora. As he criss-crossed the steep grassy hillsides peering at the ground for colour, Frieda nestled in a nearby hayloft and bedded a young scamp who has joined their journey. The great novelist of emotional intensity and sexual feeling was left out outside with his orchids and gentians. Something in this story – which Lawrence part wrote up in his unfinished novel Mr Noon – speaks to the whole of Lawrence’s life and writing. His books about it are wonderful holiday reads. Watch out for all scamps of any sex.

I love a good book list, I’m constantly picking them over and scribbling down the titles I fancy. Like Michael Donkor’s debut, Hold. He was in one of those ‘new voices’ articles at the start of the year and I’ve been waiting patiently since then. Two young black women at the heart of the story, partly set in Brixton – I’m in. I’m also champing at the bit for Melissa Harrison’s All Among The Barley. I’ve loved her writing since her debut, Clay; she puts nature at the heart of stories about people, without ever being twiddly or blousy. It’s one of those books I’ll own a physical copy of, for the glorious orange cover, it seems so apt for this summer. It’s out in August – as is The Psychology of Time Travel, Kate Mascarenhas’ first novel – a cracking time-travel suspense which I loved. Four strong lead women, so do some fantasy casting as a bonus. For non-fiction, I have Twenty Theatres Before You Die by Amber Massie-Blomfield on my pile. It’s about buildings, but also, of course, much more than that. Memoir, story, people and adventure. And this summer, I’m going to sit and read Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur properly, not dipping in and out as I have in the past. It’s reissued with an intro from Amy Liptrot, a cool, reflective writer I really admire. And finally, Justin Myer’s The Last Romeo because he really makes me laugh, and comedy is currency in this house.


More to follow…