“The old books I turn to in the middle of the night when sleep is elusive”
I stand in front of my book shelves. There are books here that I have had since I was a child. Packaged and shipped in an old tin trunk from New Zealand 54 years ago. Their blankets are tattered, worn and faded. There is a row of tall hard green backs, their thorns decorated with gold leaf that set out The novels of the Bront sistersÃ«, passed down from my grandmother Elsie Purefoy to my mother, Elizabeth Chamberlain, and from there to me.
The shelves are teeming with a collection of hardback books and paperbacks. A random collection it must be said. Fiction and non-fiction have mingled. Not a hint of order or category. They could be the shelves of any old thrift store. But one thing unites them. These are my favorite books. I have read most of them more than once. These are the books I turn to in the middle of the night, when the worries of the world sink in and sleep is desired but elusive.
As The long view Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956), the story of a marriage, told backwards from despair to hope; that of Ruth Rendell A fatal reversal (1987) who showed me how to write a thriller and Disappearance (1993) by Tim Krabbe, whose devastating 108 pages showed how to break all the rules. Guest of honor (1970), analysis by Nadine Gordimer of the transition of an African colony towards independence and the corruption that accompanies it.
Books that I read as a child. The marvelous Thunder head (1943) by Mary O’Hara and Mary Treadgold We couldn’t leave Dinah (1941), who managed to combine two of my childhood concerns, horses and the horrors of World War II. Books that I took from my mother’s bedside table. that of Alberto Moravia The woman of Rome (1947), the city in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation, its women at the mercy of the American soldiers who now hold power, and A love diary (1953) written by American writer Maude Hutchins. A writer now forgotten but who weaves the story of Christmas, a rich young woman, orphan, struck down by tuberculosis, and her inner life, her fantasies, imbued with eroticism.
that of Margaret Drabble The grinding wheel (1965), the story of Rosamund, a defiant single mother in 1960s London; Life and fate (1960) where Vasily Grossman throws the reader into the gas chambers of Auschwitz and then takes him into the menacing presence of Stalin as he plots in Moscow. Truman Hood In cold blood (1966) which revolutionized non-fiction. And even my favorite cookbooks, the Elizabeth David classic Italian food (1942) and Claudia Roden Jewish food book (1997) which I continue to use all the time.
So I made a list. It’s a personal choice. Maybe it’s the story of my life, or maybe it’s just a collection of good books. Either way, read them, enjoy them, and the next time you walk past a thrift store, come on. You never know what wonders you will find.
Julie Parsons’ latest novel, The therapy house, won detective novel of the year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Each week this year, she will be writing about one of her favorite books
Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Spyglass (1956)
I had never read anything from Elizabeth Jane Howard until I came across a copy of The long view in a flea market in the 1970s. I bought it because it was a nice little cardboard with a paper cover, more or less intact. I didn’t expect it as a novel at all. I remember sitting in a slumped chair in a student apartment on Pembroke Road and not looking up until I was finished. Then I came back and started over.
The long view begins in 1950. Mrs. Fleming, Antonia, hosts a dinner to celebrate the engagement of her son Julian. The Flemish are comfortable, the London middle class. Money is not a problem; happiness certainly is. Antonia’s marriage to Conrad Fleming falls apart. The book dates back to 1926, following them through their life together, their engagement and their dating.
Structurally, it is a triumph. Emotionally, despite the intricacies of polite English society, he is raw and powerful. The characters are portrayed vividly. Conrad âhas a heart when he chooses to use it. But overall, he didn’t care the least about others. Antonia has become the perfect woman. But she has had enough. She said, âThe very early morning was the worst time: the dreadful moments of half-consciousness to catch up with the present. 21st century readers might find the language mannered and stylized, but the story of loss, betrayal, disappointment and pain is as wild today as it was when it was first published. .
Elizabeth Jane Howard has married three times. Each ended badly. Her Chronicles of Cazalet, huge bestsellers and TV series, made her a star. It’s hard not to see your own life filtered through your fiction. I hope that the happiness that had eluded her as a young woman eventually transformed her life in her old years.
In praise of old books: the list
1. Elizabeth Jane Howard: The long view (Cap Jonathan 1956)
2. Tim Krabbe: Disappearance (Random House 1993)
3. Mary O’Hara: Thunder head (History press book 1943)
4. Claudia Roden: The Jewish Cookbook (Viking 1997)
5. Nadine Gordimer: Guest of honor (Viking Press 1970)
6 Jean Banville: The Untouchable (Picador 1997)
7. Randy Shilts: And the band kept playing (Penguin Books 1987)
8. Marguerite Yourcenar: Memories of Hadrian (Secker and Warburg 1955)
9. Doris Lessing: The summer before the Dark (Jonathan Cape 1973)
10. Primo Levi: If it’s a man (Orion Press 1959).
11. Stephen King:The brilliant (Double day 1977)
12. Margaret Drabble: The grinding wheel (Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1965)
13. Joseph Brodsky: Watermark (Hamish Hamilton 1992)
14. Susanna Moore: in the cut (Picador 1996)
15. Iain Banks: The Raven’s Road (Scribner 1992)
16. Mary Wesley: Chamomile lawn (Macmillan 1984)
17. Madhur Jaffrey: Indian food (BBC 1982)
18. Pat McCabe: The Butcher Boy (Picador 1992)
19. Joan Brady: Theory of War (Abacus 1994)
20. Truman Capote: In cold blood (Random House 1966)
21. Nancy Mitford: The pursuit of love (Hamish Hamilton 1945)
22. Raymond Carver: What are we talking about when we talk about love (Knopf 1981)
23. Laura Hillebrand: Sea biscuit (Ballantine Books 2001)
24. Anonymous (Joe Klein): Primary colors (Chatto and Windus 1996)
25. Jeanette Winterson: Cherry Sexing (Bloomsbury 1990)
26. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich (Novy Mir 1962)
27. Mary Treadgold: We couldn’t leave Dinah (Cap Jonathan 1941)
28. JM Coetzee: Iron age (Harvill Secker 1990)
29. Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell): A fatal reversal (Viking 1987)
30. Bruce Chatwin: Edge lines (Picador 1987)
31. Vassily Grossman: Life and fate (Harvill 1985)
32. Molly Keane: Good behavior (AndrÃ© Deutsch 1991)
33. Russell Hoban: Ridley walker (Cap Jonathan 1980)
34. Azar Nafisi: Reading Lolita in Tehran (Tauris 2003)
35. Iris Murdoch: The sea, the sea (Chatto and Windus 1978)
36. Jean Le CarrÃ©: The Honorable Schoolboy (Hodder and Stoughton 1977)
37. Maude Hutchins: A love diary (Neville Spearman 1953)
38. Jon Krakauer: In thin air (Anchor books 1997)
39. Elisabeth David: Italian food (Macdonald 1942)
40. AS Byatt: Possession (Chatto and Windus (1990)
41. Alberto Moravia: The woman of Rome (Zoland Books 1999 (first published 1947)
42. Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping (Farrar Strauss and Giroux 1980)
43. Ryszard Kapuscinski: Shah of the Shahs (Penguin Random House 1992)
44. Justin Cartwright: Dreaming about masai (Macmillan 1993)
45. Gitty Sereny: In this darkness (AndrÃ© Deutsch 1974)
46. ââCormac McCarthy: All the pretty horses (Knopf 1992)
47. John Updike: Couples (Knopf 1968)
48. Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and other stories (Penguin Classics, 2008, first published 1922)
49. John McGahern: Darkness (Penguin 1965)
50. Jeanne Didion: The white album (Simon and Schuster 1979)
51. Martin Amis: Arrow of time (Jonathan Cap 1991)
52: Graham Swift: Land of water (William Heinemann 1983)