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.

The Cold Millions

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

When young Rye Dolan finds himself inside the private library of the mining kingpin Lem Brand, he’s initially impressed by the twenty-foot-high bookcases and the onyx fireplace – but then he is ‘flushed with sadness’. Every injustice and tragedy that has touched him in his nearly 17 years of living comes back to him, and he grieves for ‘All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.’ Such is the gulf between America’s rich and poor in 1910.

It’s moment that cements Rye’s solidarity with the working class, even as he becomes implicated in a conspiracy to weed out certain firebrands and crush the movement for workers’ rights altogether. Rye has already been involved in labour rioting in Spokane, Washington, but mostly just tagging along with his older brother Gig, an idealist who, when he’s not joining protests or carousing in the city’s tenderloin, has his nose in War and Peace (although he only owns volumes 1 and 3).

The one who sharpens Rye’s politics and pulls him into a wider world is not Gig or Tolstoy, but Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – a real historical figure amongst Jess Walter’s great cast of invented characters. Flynn, 19 years old and pregnant but already a veteran when we meet her, was an important activist who focused the labour movement and got vilified by the anti-union press as the ‘she-dog of anarchy’. Walter’s other characters could pale in comparison to the notorious, charismatic Flynn, but he musters some marvellous creations. These include Del Devereux, a murderous, over-the-hill private detective whose every utterance is beyond hard-boiled, but who somehow skirts all the usual clichés.

Walter sustains a balance of finely-plotted fiction and illuminating history throughout. Taft, a lawless boomtown on the mountainous Montana-Idaho border, is a fascinating footnote in the story of the American frontier, and Walter doesn’t need to exaggerate anything to make it so. What happens to Rye and Flynn there, somewhere in the middle of the novel, is surely pure fiction, but it fits perfectly.

One of my favourite new novels in some time, The Cold Millions an earnest celebration of a fierce fight for dignity made over a century ago, but compelling, unusual thriller too.

Mr Wilder & Me

Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s latest is informed by the floundering 70s career of Billy Wilder (the master Austrian-American writer-director who once made Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity), when he was struggling to adapt an obscure short story into what would come to be his penultimate picture: Fedora. This tricky time for Wilder is refracted through the fond memories of a Greek composer, Calista, who in her youth became part of the production as it moved around Europe. Calista is Coe’s invention, but many of the moments she witnesses are drawn from real behind-the-scenes anecdotes that elucidate our image of Wilder, a cinematic genius who can admire the new ‘kids with beards’ like Spielberg and Scorsese, but not hope to compete with them. His time seems to be up.

Even though I’ve sought out lots of Wilder films (Stalag 17 and Ace In The Hole are a couple of favourites of mine, beyond the obvious classics) I have yet to see Fedora. This didn’t mar my enjoyment of the book, but it helps to be a cineaste in general. Mr Wilder & Me may lack the assured comic feel of some of Coe’s other recent work like Number 11 and Expo 58, but it has plenty to say about artists who find themselves out of step with the times, about the creative drive…and also about the mushroomy, pungent charm of Brie De Meaux cheese.

Starve Acre

Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

In the aftermath of their son’s death, Richard and Juliette are rattling around their lonely house on the edge of moorland, spiralling in their grief. He busies himself researching the barren field of Starve Acre where a gallows tree, the Stythwaite Oak, once stood. Her reaction is more spiritual — early on, she summons a local group of occultists called the Beacons, prompting Richard’s disdain.

Hurley’s rural Yorkshire scenery is full of wild beauty, but it also thrums with old violence and fresh menace. He is in his element with this type of folk horror. Some early passages involving the gradual reanimation of a hare’s unearthed skeleton, as it sprouts organs, sinews, skin and fur, risked being ludicrous, but I found them fantastically visceral and creepy.

I only wish that the couple’s strained relationships with the villagers had been explored further, and that the conclusion had been stronger. Many well-turned phrases and macabre images from Starve Acre will stick with me, but I’m not sure the ending will.

I picked this up after enjoying an interview with Hurley in an issue of Weird Walk (I enthused about this fantastic zine here) and would certainly read him again.

Swallowed by a Whale

Swallowed by a Whale: How To Survive the Writing Life — Edited by Huw Lewis-Jones

In this handsome little volume from British Library Publishing, Huw Lewis-Jones has collected lots of hard-earned advice on writing from established authors, including Sarah Moss, Paraic O’Donnell, Raynor Winn, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Cressida Cowell and Michael Rosen. Many of the tips offered up inevitably contradict each other — one contributor evangelises about getting a dog, another warns strongly against it. But any budding writer is sure to intuit the bits and pieces most relevant to them, and find plenty to take on board. All of this interspersed with witty illustrated lists and observations by artists like Helen Stephens, Tom Gauld and Chris Riddell.

This book can help you face the terror of the blank page, rearrange your workspace, sharpen your style, deal with rejection and write regularly without losing your mind or maddening your loved ones. It celebrates the complicated craft and turbulent lifestyle of writing whilst being of genuine practical use. I read it in one great gulp and I expect I’ll return to it many times.

A Thousand Moons

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

This sequel to Days Without End should work fine as a standalone novel, but it’s surely enhanced by intimate knowledge of that earlier, more action-packed book — of Thomas McNulty’s many adventures criss-crossing the fractious America of the mid-19th century. Along the way he, with his brother-in-arms and lover John Cole, adopted an orphaned Lakota girl, and A Thousand Moons is her story – its title taken from her people’s phrase for a long period of time.

Winona’s words have plenty of the effortless poetry that characterised Days Without End, but they also contain a deep pain that her adoptive father could never experience nor fully understand. When she is raped, the circumstances bewildering and hazy in her memory, her status in the evolving, ever-flawed America becomes painfully clear — she doesn’t even qualify as a person of 1870s Tennessee. We are used to heroes in our Westerns being on the wrong side of the law, but rarely in this cruel sense.

Winona’s quest for vengeance (as well as the retrieval of a treasured rifle stolen from a freed slave) reveals further cracks in the peace of the post-war South, where lynchings still occur and bandits run riot, bending the few good men to their will. She discovers ‘that strange sense of aftermath that follows disaster which has always its own promise of disaster renewed bubbling through it’.

Balanced against the inhumane ugliness, there’s companionship and familial love in the scenes on Lige Magan’s tobacco farm, and the first flush of romance once Winona encounters another Native orphan, Peg. It’s another outstanding, powerfully empathic novel from Barry.

Days Without End

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Thomas McNulty, a refugee of the Irish famine in mid-19th century America, chances upon fellow orphan John Cole, and they stumble into a life together. They become the unlikely entertainment for miners in a Daggsville saloon. But once their boyish looks begin to fade, they’re soldiers, swept up in an atrocious campaign against America’s native tribes. One thing leads another, not least the American Civil War.

But the bitter struggle against ‘Johnny Reb’ is mostly background to the human story that propels everything. A surprising development from the early chapters is that McNulty and Cole adopt an orphaned Sioux girl, whom they name Winona because her real name is too tricky to pronounce. The soul of the novel lies with this tentative family of orphans, trying to survive in a shattered, confused America that must nonetheless be their home, their land.

McNulty’s rambling narration, looking back on these heady days, pulls you right in. He omits, forgets, leaps back and forth within his own history, but he tells a cracking good tale – a grand, gruelling adventure threaded finely through the chaos of war. He pauses to offer folksy but powerful philosophies. He lingers on fantastic descriptions of the natural world he has encountered, from the thick, ancient redwoods of California, to the fractured creeks of Tennessee. In between there’s a damp spring in Massachusetts and a brutal winter stuck inside an infamous Georgia POW camp. All of this travel and trouble comes wrapped in a breezy Irish-American-Yankee vernacular. McNulty’s facility for capturing all kinds of beauty, violence, tenderness and terror within that idiom never seems a stretch.

It’s as if we have pulled up a bar stool next to one of the great storytellers. The night is drawing on, but we hardly notice, as the unlikely, thrilling tales keep on coming, as well as the darker moments, wracked by trauma, as this man comes to terms with the things he has seen and done.

“There didn’t seem to be anything alive, including ourselves. We were dislocated, we were not there, now we were ghosts.” 

Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave

Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave by Mark Mordue

Mark Mordue was at work on a complete biography of Nick Cave when events in both of their lives around 2015 caused the ambitious project to fizzle out. ‘I’m a different person now,’ Cave said, seeming to draw a line under his long-standing co-operation. Mordue has since returned to his extensive research, but now he zooms in on Cave’s formative years. Boy On Fire looks in detail at every fad and phase, every side of Cave that can be traced prior to him leaving Australia in February 1980. These include the tearaway schoolboy, the dreaming junkie, the tyrannical frontman and the sensitive young soul blindsided by the death of his father. There are other dimensions to the young Nick we might not immediately recognise.

Mordue finds so much that connects with the Nick Cave of 2021, including how he uses imagination to reckon with personal tragedy. In fact, everything is grist to his mill. His early collaborator and girlfriend Anita Lane once told him, ‘If you were hit by a car, you’d reach for your pencil and try to write what it was like before you died.’

For fans it’s thrilling to read of moments and images from Cave’s early days that will surface in his songs years, even decades, later. A very particular stretch of the Ovens River flows from Wangaratta into multiple lyrics, most notably Sad Waters. The hopeful wisdom of Colin Cave underpins Nature Boy.

My father said, don’t look away
You got to be strong, you got to be bold, now
He said, that in the end it is beauty
That is going to save the world, now

A good music bio has you constantly looking up the tracks and bands it mentions. This one also directs you toward painters (Matthias Grünewald, Egon Schiele, Sidney Nolan, the Dadaists) and writers (Dostoevsky, Alfred Jarry, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor). It’s a soup of reference that thickens as Cave assimilates culture like there’s no tomorrow, and feeds it all back into his nascent band, The Boys Next Door.

Mordue has aimed for Boy On Fire to show Cave at the centre of ‘a kaleidoscope of people and stories’. He’s particularly strong on the subculture that congregated in the Crystal Ballroom (a legendary venue in St Kilda, then Melbourne’s bohemian-attracting red light district) to watch post-punk bands in the late 70s.

In one interview excerpt, Brownyn Bonney provides a perceptive account of why it is Nick Cave who became a star, whilst other gifted artists from the time faded into obscurity. She carefully lists all the crucial things that he possessed, and notes that ‘everyone else lacked two or three of those ingredients’. In a single page, she threatens to render the rest of the book redundant, so complete is her sense of the young Cave, and so neatly does it tally with the same artist who has just put out Carnage at 63. Work ethic is again and again pinpointed by Cave’s contemporaries as his great advantage. ‘He works like a demon. He deserves his success,’ insists Bonney. In issue #138 of The Red Hand Files, Cave concurs that it’s mainly that surfeit of sheer energy – ‘a shameless and pathological belief in my own awesomeness’ – that has sustained his long career, above any talent he may have had.

Other participants in the scene that whirled around The Boys Next Door and their clique are more blunt in their assessment, less prepared to balance Cave’s virtues against his vices. ‘I thought they were dickheads,’ remarks fashion designer Alannah Hill.

The ‘Shivers’ music video. Director Paul Goldman remembers Nick Cave insisted on having a mirror attached to the camera so that he could see himself, ‘great narcissist that he is.’

The books ends with Cave and his cohort aboard a flight to London, to them the promised land of indie music, as the 80s dawn. During the flight they elect to change their name to The Birthday Party. I was reminded of Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth Beatles bio, which also chooses to stop with its subject airborne and on the cusp of something bigger (the soon-to-be Fab Four flying home from Hamburg for the last time, in December 1962).

If Mordue goes beyond that long-haul cliffhanger and does continue with his epic biography of Cave after all, there are four full decades of restless creativity left to cover, as Cave moves through multiple cities and scenes, collects and discards muses and collaborators, and emerges from addictions and complex private torments. It’s a staggering challenge. Such is the artistic depth and international breadth of that story, the ongoing work could end up akin to John Richardson’s all-consuming multi-volume biography of his friend Picasso. But Boy on Fire‘s brief flashes forward into the 2000s only confirm that Mordue is the man to document the Bad Seeds years — the brilliant biographer Nick Cave deserves.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

C Pam Zhang’s debut is a Chinese immigrant story that spans the California Gold Rush, centred on two very different siblings. Its early chapters follow the orphans Sam and Lucy on their quest to give their father’s body a proper burial. Just as this plot gathers pace, the novel darts sharply back in time, filling in their parents’ backstories, and soon we have a complete sense of the downtrodden family.

Sam takes after their father, with a volatile temper, a lust for gold, and a connection to the hills that once held so much of it – even if prospecting now means a lot of drudgery and disappointment. Lucy grasps that land, wealth and privilege will always be denied to their kind, so she’s drawn west across the Pacific, to the misty green hills and red-walled cities her Ma describes so vividly. She also feels the lure of a more civilised America over to the East, with its paved roads, neat shops and changing seasons.

Dates are presented as XX62, XX59 and so on, and very little geography is named – Zhang shrugging off specificity, giving herself space to reshape the myth of the American West. Hers is a frontier where immense buffalo and ferocious tigers once roamed, where rituals have tremendous power. This ‘unwritten history’ seems to rear up into the present when the characters move into the wild, wide-open landscapes.

While I gather some of Zhang’s other inventions are problematic, writers have always taken all kinds of liberties with the Wild West. My frustration with this novel really lies with its try-hard style. There are beautiful sentences, but so much the writing is self-consciously lyrical, and muddles the sense what’s actually unfolding. Coupled with that fussy structure, it feels like this otherwise straightforward tale has been overworked.