By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK
It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favorite people about their favourite books. This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors). For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists. If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).
Rupert Thomson is a British novelist born in 1955. He is the author of eight novels including Death of a Murderer, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Costa Awards and by World Book Day for The Book to Talk About 2008. His next book is a memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop, due out in 2010. You can read the first chapter here.
There are some books that cast a spell over you. They stay with you long after you have turned the last page, making your life feel richer and more magical. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is one of those books. I have known about it for some time – it was first published almost thirty years ago – but only got around to reading it this year, perhaps because Faber have just published a new paperback edition. For once, you can judge a book by its cover. The image of a single-track railway viaduct disappearing into the mist in a heavily wooded landscape does perfect justice to the poetic, haunting quality of Robinson’s prose. The novel is the tale of two sisters growing up in the care – if ‘care’ is the right word – of their disturbed aunt Sylvie, the sister of their dead mother, in the tiny, isolated town of Fingerbone in the far north-west of the United States. The narrator is the younger of the two sisters, Ruth, and she inhabits that eerie and yet utterly convincing space between the everyday and the extraordinary, demonstrating a child’s ability to adapt to anything, no matter how strange. And this novel is definitely strange: Sylvie makes her nieces eat their supper in the dark, and she sleeps on top of the covers with her shoes under her pillow. Though Housekeeping is, at one level, an investigation of madness, and the mystery of madness, and although its themes are loneliness, abandonment, and that infinitely human attempt, especially where children are involved, to make sense of the world in which they have found themselves, the writing is so beautiful, so subtle, and so wise that the book manages to be both heartbreaking and life-affirming.
Another book that has definitely cast a spell over me is Light Years by James Salter. Set in New England and New York in the late 1950s, it paints a portrait of a glamorous couple, Viri and Nedra Berland, and their doomed but gilded marriage. There is a wonderfully impressionistic delicacy and vividness to Salter’s language, but even as we read about the languorous days by the beach, the sophisticated dinner parties – in Salter, sumptuous food is always being prepared or served – and the intimacies and pleasures of marriage and children, there is a keen sense that this paradise, though fully inhabited and savoured, is slipping through their fingers. This is the core of Salter’s gift, to convey the intense beauty and brutal transience of life; like a master perfumier, he seems to be able to extract an essence and preserve it. Here he is, describing a mother’s feeling for her daughter as they lie next to each other in the Cape Cod sand dunes: ‘But to be close to a child, for whom one spent everything, whose life was protected and nourished by one’s own, to have that child beside one, at peace, was the real, the deepest, the only joy.’ If those few words don’t convince you to read this novel, nothing will.
For children aged between two and ten, I can’t think of a better writer than Kathleen Hale. I have chosen Orlando: A Seaside Holiday, but I could equally have plumped for Orlando: A Camping Holiday, Orlando Keeps A Dog or Orlando Buys A Farm. The whole ‘Orlando’ series is a delight. These artful, brightly-coloured, large-format books are at least a foot high and six inches wide, which means you are even more likely to get lost in them. In Seaside Holiday, Orlando, his wife, Grace, and their three kittens are given permission to go on holiday by their master. Two horses, Vulcan and Venus, take the cats to the quaint seaside town of Owlbarrow, where they stay in a beached ship that acts as a kind of hotel for animals. The story is simple but quirky, with a surrealistic touch that both connects with and ignites a child’s imagination. Kathleen’s Hale’s language is always witty and deliciously inventive. One of Orlando’s children, the naughty, coal-black Tinkle, describes shrimps as being like ‘fried spectacles’, while at bedtime, when the kittens are all yawning in unison, their little pink mouths gape like ‘pinched snapdragon flowers’. The illustrations, also by Kathleen Hale, could not be more apt or more exquisite, and they are saturated in colours that border on the hallucinogenic. In Venus and Vulcan’s bedroom on the ship, there are horse-friendly curtains of straw that are held in place by rope and adorned with ‘pretty bunches of carrots’. In Orlando’s bedroom, a dachshund masquerades as a curvy brown sofa. I read the Orlando books when I was a child, and now, some forty years later, I am reading them to my daughter, Evie. She loves them just as much as I ever did, a sure sign that Kathleen Hale’s books, and her imagination, are truly timeless.