Books of 2021

My favourite new books of this past year:

Crow Court by Andy Charman
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave by Mark Mordue
And Away… by Bob Mortimer
The Lyrics by Paul McCartney – edited by Paul Muldoon
Barbara Throws A Wobbler by Nadia Shireen
The False Rose by Jakob Wegelius — translated by Peter Graves

I’ve read a lot (just over 50 books), but I fell out of the habit of blogging about everything I finished. Perhaps I’ll get back to that in 2022.

The best older books I got around to in 2021 were Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster and The Offing by Benjamin Myers.

The Lyrics

The Lyrics by Paul McCartney – edited by Paul Muldoon

Dipping into this in between the last of the mince pies, I’m delighted by its many departures from McCartney’s well-rehearsed anecdotes and well-established Beatles lore. This is in large part thanks to the poet Paul Muldoon, on whose extensive interviews with his fellow Paul (50+ hours clocked since 2015) the whole project relies.

We learn that McCartney is mildly embarrassed by Rock Show, and has been meaning to get around to doing Rocky Raccoon live. Reflecting on And I Love her, he wistfully recalls the last time he saw his old flame Jane Asher – a chance encounter many years after their mid-60s engagement, but just a stone’s throw from the ‘garret’ in her parents’ home in Wimpole Street where he famously dreamt Yesterday. She Came In Through The Bathroom Window leads him to describe his synaesthesia, which renders days of the week as distinct colours for him and has many other ways proven ‘fertile ground’ for his songwriting.

If Muldoon occasionally nudges McCartney too far toward some lofty, literary claim — “part of what lies behind [A Hard Day’s Night] is, of course, Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night” being one — that can be forgiven when the book has plenty of off-kilter choices such as Check My Machine, House of Wax and Spirits of Ancient Egypt — none of them songs that McCartney would be likely to expound in any other context.

Even more surprising is the incredible depth of the MPL archive. Of course there’s a wealth of great photography, but there are also postcards, paintings, jottings on envelopes, even schoolbooks from the days before young Paul ever set eyes on the teddy boy John Lennon. A careful selection from a million-plus items makes The Lyrics a lavish visual treat.

And in the end, the love you take

is equal to the love you make.

Occasionally a particular image will leap out with special significance, seeming to capture a creative breakthrough or a major turning point in a wildly eventful life. In a 1969 notebook, underneath the couplet from The End that self-consciously called time on The Beatles’ recording career, McCartney has doodled four hearts pierced by a single arrow, in pink ink. On the facing page of the same notebook, he’s composed Every Night, a gem that turned up on his first solo album, in which he’s clearly sinking into his post-Fab depression, but is mercifully buoyed by his love for Linda.

She Come By It Natural

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh

Dolly Parton was born in January ’46 in a cabin on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains – after which her sharecropper father paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of grain. Sarah Smarsh’s rural Kansas upbringing involved a different kind of poverty, but in She Come By It Natural, it’s a unique lens through which she can examine her favourite country music superstar – for so long a kind of punchline, but now an icon with an assured legacy as a ‘sex symbol, creative genius, and philanthropic juggernaut’.

Smarsh draws on her own childhood, professional life, and relationships – particularly her bond with her ‘seen-it-all’ grandmother Betty, ‘the real life Dolly’ – to tease out the feminist dimensions in Dolly’s songs and in the way she leads her life. The title comes from Betty’s remark that Dolly ‘come by it natural’ – while Dolly has politely eschewed labels and movements, letting feminist wave after feminist wave pass her by, she in fact has always been a self-possessed woman, leading by example.

Any casual fan knows Dolly has never forgotten her ‘dirt poor’ roots, building her career on songs like Coat of Many Colors, but most will find some new wrinkle to admire here – for me, it’s the enormous energy she has poured into charity work since making her fortune. I liked the observation that Dolly’s cartoonish ‘backwoods Barbie’ look (modelled on the ‘town tramp’ she admired as a girl), so often ridiculed, is as much an expression of solidarity with the downtrodden as Johnny Cash’s grizzled ‘Man in Black’ persona was. “That’s the difference between being a man and a woman making a thoughtful statement with their clothes,” notes Smarsh.

The book is lifted from four articles first published in the roots music journal No Depression in 2017. Although a new foreword offers a cursory roll call of how Dolly and the world have moved on since, it made me wish the material had been reshaped and expanded. As it is, it doesn’t flow as well as it might, occasionally reintroducing concepts in a way that shouldn’t be necessary in a seamless book.

Perhaps in a rejigged version there would’ve been more passages like Smarsh’s perceptive analysis of the 1970 masterpiece Down From Dover. That song, the tale of a pregnant teenager abandoned by the baby’s father and then her family, is Dolly reckoning with ‘the ghosts of women’s fates she has escaped’ and comes from a southern Gothic seam in her early songwriting. I’d have liked more of these close readings of key recordings, which can unlock so many of the ideas Smarsh is interested in, including Dolly’s deep empathy and precious connection to her hardscrabble origins.

The Honoured Society

The Honoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia Observed by Norman Lewis

As absorbing as Naples ’44 (Lewis’ memoirs from newly Allied-occupied Campania) but less of a travelogue, more a meticulous history. In explaining the Mafia’s grip on Sicily up to the 1960s, Lewis discovers an island with one foot still planted in the feudal era, a people with a uniquely stubborn yet defeatist moral compass, and a catalogue of violence so appalling and so frequent that only a May Day peasant massacre can trigger any prolonged outrage.

Reading about the near-endless clan vendettas (omertá), and the tight-lipped ordinary folk whose lives were all touched by their murderous spiral, you can sense the frustration of the island’s carabinieri growing with every page turn. It’s especially heartbreaking to read about good men like Placido Rizzotto who tried to bring change. When Sicily is dragged into the twentieth century, it’s on the Mafia’s own terms – corrupt construction contracts and the conversion of Lebanon’s opium into heroin to ship to the Americas.

Although he finds the landscapes so morose and un-Mediterranean, Lewis has a brilliant facility for describing them. Here is a choice paragraph describing the brooding atmosphere of a town whose name Mario Puzo later borrowed for The Godfather:

Corleone is built under a lugubrious backdrop of mountains the colour of lead, and its seedy houses are wound round a strange black rocky outcrop jutting up from the middle of the town. Upon this pigmy mesa is built the town lockup, and from its summit the crows launch themselves in search of urban carrion. Behind the cliff-shadowed menaced streets of Corleone stretches a savage entranced landscape of rock and grizzled pasture, for centuries the setting of a bloody routine of feuds and ambuscades. A few miles away is the famous wood of Ficuzza, a place of ghosts and legends, over possession of which the two families of Barbaccia and Lorello have been slowly destroying one another since 1918.