Hello there, my little Junebugs! Truth be told, I tried to begin this blog in May (and in April too!) I've been so busy polishing up the final draft of my own novel, Ellen and Arbor, that all other writing work has had to take a back seat. And yet when I've not been writing (or painting, of course!) then I have been reading, and I wanted to share a few of my favourite finds for the next time you're stuck without a page turner!
The Freedom Artist by Ben Okri has received a great deal of press attention, and the originality that runs through this novel makes it easy to see why. Funnily enough, Okri appeared at the end of another book I was reading recently: Up by Ben Fogle, in which he documented the arduous yet ultimately inspiring process of climbing to the top of Mount Everest. As it turns out, Ben is a friend of Ben (if you know what I mean!) and Okri had actually written a poem for Fogle to read during his struggle to the summit. I felt a strong sense of poeticism coming through The Freedom Artist too: Okri's style of writing is straightforward without being simplistic, and every short chapter has a rhythm that lends the book a timeless story-telling quality.
The tale is set in a dystopian world where individuality is outlawed and books have been abandoned, yet the distressed cries of citizens in their sleep suggest a deep personal cost. Despite Okri's elegant, pared-back style of writing, this is not an easy read. And yet, while some parts are distressing, on reflection I felt that they actually helped me to empathize with all of the novel's characters: the fearful ones as well as the courageous. In its own review of the book, The Guardian highlighted Okri's desire to draw on 'the vast invisible literature' of Africa, and the sense of fables, myths and ancient legends that feel both unfamiliar (to me) and yet also archetypal really comes through. I might have preferred a greater focus on the novel's female freedom fighters - we certainly don't need another story in which a young man saves the day! - but if you're looking for a book that's both philosophical and political, this might be just what you've been searching for.
In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark is another artistic novel that's very much in my wheelhouse: make that The Yellow House, because it's all about a certain Mr Vincent van Gogh! When I wrote my Art History thesis on how Japanese art inspired Western artists, I loved investigating van Gogh's work in detail, and I've been planning a full blog based on his letters for some time (stay tuned!) The way this novel delves in to art theory and provenance - the documented history of an artwork's origins and ownership - took me right back to my studies (fond memories, almost all of them!) It expresses so vividly the emotionality of art and what paintings mean to its characters (as well as how those meanings take shape) - it's definitely worth recommending to the art, history (or art history) lover in your life!
And as any fans of the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist will already know, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is one of this year's most thought-provoking new releases, challenging what we think we know about justice and the impact its failure can have over many years (and for many lives). From a writer's point of view, I loved how Jones blended three different but very relevant perspectives in this book - and interestingly, the reading group notes at the back say she began by focusing on only one! Perhaps my favourite works are those that interweave the political and the personal, demonstrating awareness of the context in which our characters operate without compromising on the resonance of emotional details. And while we couldn't quite call it a 'happy ending', this powerful, eye-opening read will remain with you long after the story has finished.
But what about non-fiction, I hear you cry (please don't cry!)? Not to fret, fact fans, I have two recommendations for you: both breaking the boundaries of traditional, often misogynistic history in very different ways. If you enjoy true crime books, film or podcasts, then I cannot recommend highly enough The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. While the notorious Victorian murderer has become an infamous icon, terrorising the streets of London without ever being captured, the women he killed are often reduced to historical footnotes: rarely given more than their names (if that) and burdened with sexist assumptions about their choices, professions and lifestyles. In this book, we follow the life stories of each of the so-called 'Canonical Five' from birth or even before until moments before their deaths. This style allows Rubenhold to reduce the Ripper's impact, and instead focus on the incredible challenges that these women faced (including those that they overcame). This book truly moved me when I learned about the rich, complex and often tragic lives that the Five lived in Whitechapel and beyond. It is a vital piece of feminist history that revises what we know and how we approach acquiring that knowledge (in my opinion, it cries out to be made visually - perhaps a TV series running over five nights?) The deaths of the Five were far from inevitable. It seems clear to me that, as they endured a toxic mix of poverty and misogyny, the Ripper was far from the only person in Victorian Britain to have committed crimes against them.
And for my final favourite (and wonderful writing inspiration!) we have Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Final Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. I've yet to find a writer (aspiring or otherwise!) who isn't a fan of the To Kill a Mockingbird author and this book truly tells a fascinating tale. It begins with attention to a shocking crime spree - without spoiling the details, that story alone is an utterly thrilling read! We then learn that Harper Lee spent many years trying and failing to use the material to write her second book, having been overwhelmed by the unanticipated success of Mockingbird and yet also frustrated by her publishers' failure to appreciate Go Set a Watchman. (This work would eventually be published only one year before Harper Lee's death: an unexpected delight for admirers yet also a cause for concern amongst those who doubted that her advisors were working with either her consent or her best interests at heart).
All the writers out there will surely empathise when, discussing her close childhood friend and fellow writer Truman Capote, Lee notes that 'we are bound by a common anguish'. This book demonstrates the depth of her sophisticated mind as well as the challenges she faced being, in my opinion, very much ahead of her time. Lee's life was far from easy, especially during the time that this book deals with, yet it is well worth a read to better understand one of the twentieth century's leading literary lights. And as for the story of Christmas spirit and how Mockingbird was made possible? Surely that too must be made into a film!
There you have it folks, a (not so brief) rundown of my spring/summer bookshelf! Let me know what you've been loving this season and stay tuned for more monthly(ish) favourites coming soon!