Recently ‘The Guardian’ published a list of the ‘best’ books of the twenty first century so far. It got me to thinking and so here I present my own list. They may not be acknowledged ‘classics’ (though some are) and they may not be ‘important’ (though some are), but what links them together is that I love each and every one of them and I return to them (and some of these writers) time and time again.
The Atmospheric Railway – Shena Mackay One of our finest writers and a master of the short story to boot. This is probably the best and most complete short story collection.
Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History Pulled together by an international team of historians and writers, this volume does just what it’s says on the tin: short histories of some of the most notable and important figures in lesbian and gay history, including many which are uncommonly known, being outside of the standard western LGBT firmament. While I don’t think history should focus solely on ‘the great and the good’ this and its sister volume (covering figures in contemporary history) are an essential reference work.
Glittering Images – Camille Paglia A brilliant writer, consummate scholar and waspish wit. Glittering Images presents us with a history of art through carefully selected images, from paintings in the tomb of Nefertiti to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith(?!). You may not agree with everything she says, but you’ll never be bored!
From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club, 1945 – 1985 – Jill Gardiner. Gateways was Britain’s most famous lesbian club, possibly made most famous by having several scenes in the film ‘The Killing of Sister George’ set there. Gardner’s wonderful book interviews many regulars from the club, piecing together a history post-war British lesbianism and the secrets of what went on behind the green door.
Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century – Julie Peakman I don’t understand why sexual history doesn’t fill the bestseller charts: what’s not to like about something which reveals the vices and titillations of our past? Peakman’s book is exemplary: illuminating, witty and broad.
The Five: Hallie Rubenhold Great history sheds a clear light on the past, paying no heed to received wisdom, and Rubenhold’s book does just that: setting right the pictures we have of the women murdered by Jack the Rippers: Rubenhold unearths the stories of these women, not merely the faceless, inanimate prostitutes of old, but full blooded portraits of women as much victims of a brutal society as victims of serial killer.
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson A masterpiece. The story of Ursula Todd and her journey through the twentieth century, each turning point revisited time and again to show the journeys not taken, choices not made, risks not taken. Sounds convoluted and pretentious but Atkinson guides us through this wondrous evocation of a century with style, ease and humanity.
The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher The story of two Sheffield families through the turbulent 1980s, Hensher has produced a fine family saga which matches any of the Victorian classics: Humane, emotional and all played out across a finely drawn time of political and social upheaval.
Be Near Me – Andrew O’Hagan An overlooked gay classic. A lonely gay priest is tempted and ultimately betrayed by a local youth, resulting in scandal and accusations of abuse. Fabulously, O’Hagan never takes the easy options here: each character, every action is nuanced and totally real.
Concretopia – John Grindrod I love twentieth century architecture: the optimism, style, egalitarianism and sometimes sheer bloody mindedness at its heart…and John Grindrod is a great guide.
Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh As John ‘Pink Flamingos’ Waters is no longer making films, this is the next best thing. In ‘Eileen’, Moshfegh has created a beautiful, camp monster, wrapped up in a noit-style crime caper. The calling card of a great talent.
The Ministry of Nostalgia – Owen Hatherley ‘Authentic’, ‘vintage’: just some of the words and phrases which currently stifle our look towards a bold and new future. Hatherley boldly pulls apart and dissects this way of looking and thinking (and, probably correctly, includes in his sights some things I hold dear, notably ‘Ghostbox’ records and Alexandra Harris’s ‘Romantic Moderns’) with clarity and wit.
Kitchen – Nigella Lawson I love cooking and food and Nigella Lawson is a great writer: interspersed with recipes are stories about family and friends and how she came upon the recipes. If there is one recipe in this book which sums it up (and the one which I return to again and again) is her ‘Praised Chicken’ – her Mother’s recipe for poached chicken with vegetables and rice. Simple, but perfect.
This is Uncool: the 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco – Garry Mulholland. Simply some of the best writing on pop music and a great survey of pop at the end of the century…and before it began to eat itself.
Dark Matter – Michelle Paver One of the best recent horror stories. A creeping dread seeps through the investigation of a lost arctic adventure, just as the spirit of M R James haunts the pages. Brrrr….
The Winterlings – Cristina Sanchez Andrade During the Spanish Civil War, sisters Saladina and Dolores are told to flee the village by their grandfather and eventually find themselves in England. Years later, they return home, bringing with them memories and secrets which many would prefer to forget. Surprising, funny, vulgar yet subtle: a thought provoking conundrum packed with full bodied characters; whimsical tales and startling images of a rich, pungent culture. It is generous and profound, guttural and poetic…
England’s Post War Listed Buildings – Elain Harwood Does just what it says on the tin, with beutiful photographs of the past’s expressions of optimism for the future.
Romantic Moderns – Alexandra Harris It is often said that the modernists in literature and art (Woolf, Joyce, Sutherland, Brandt) fought against the traditional forms inherited from the 19th century and, naturally stood against the pastoral, the romantic in the twentieth century. Harris’s book attempts to correct that view, showing how the modern and the traditional intertwined and produced some of the most beautiful works of the century. Another beautiful production from Thames and Hudson and a great book which challenges common belief and forces to re-evaluate our perceptions.
Pond – Claire Louise Bennett An audacious debut of short stories loosely based around a single woman living alone on the coast in Ireland. Beautifully written, with hints of Virginia Woolf.
The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson The book which I have most wrestled with since it’s publication. A memoir of sorts, it details the building of a relationship between Nelson and her partner, a trans man. Lots to admire, even more to think about. Given the current debates around transgender rights, this is a book very much for now.
The Stars in the Bright Sky – Alan Warner We first met these characters in ‘The Soprano’ when, as schoolgirls, they visited the big city. Now, a few years on we meet them again as they are about to depart for a holiday. Warner’s characters are big, bright and breezy, painting a vibrant picture of the lives of young women today. I didn’t want to leave them.
The Vegetarian – Han Kang A very polite protest. A woman takes a stand for her individualism by becoming a vegetarian, causing ructions amongst her family and friends and affecting her very core as a human being.
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters I love all Sarah Waters books but this, her last, is also her very best: The Barbers, a young married couple become ‘paying guests’ at the home of Mrs Wray and her daughter, Frances. Lillian Barber and Frances begin an illicit affair and the tensions of the close packed household simmer and roll to an explosive climax. Waters is in total command here, with beautifully rounded characters and a ratchetting up the tension worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.
First Love – Gwendoline Riley A blistering evocation of a relationship, possibly toxic, possibly loving, Riley dissects with a scalpel and writes with a laser, proving without doubt that she is one of our finest novelists.
And no list would be complete without something from the Smiths:
There But For The – Ali Smith There is so much to love about Ali Smith’s work, but this is the novel when I understood…and you always remember the first time: the fun, wit and elasticity of her language, the story of the unknown dinner party guest who refuses to leave, that unique examination of modern life via sideways glances and peculiar perspectives. Like all the great writers, Ali Smith’s work could not be mistaken for anyone else.
NW – Zadie Smith It could so easily have been ‘On Beauty’, but ‘NW’ just pips it to my favourite Zadie novel: The story of two schoolfriends, the story of a place, a city in flux, experimental, beautifully written (of course) and pitch perfect voices. A nod to ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, a touch of experimentation. Wonderful.