Unthank School of Writing Blog

21 Dec 2016

Ashley Stokes’ Top Five Books of 2016

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Last Christmas we asked our tutors to compile an end-of-year list from the books they had read that year, one refreshingly unconstrained to books published in 2015. Any bibliophile worth his or her salts is an omnivore. We don’t just read what everyone is chattering about. What we choose to read, and when, may offer us a revelation of how things are, taking us on a journey through the corridors and byways our imaginations, emotions and fears have drawn us to unwillingly. Here’s Ashley Stokes on what has been keeping him distracted in 2016.

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Last year I mentioned that I was trying to buy fewer books and wade thorough the piles in my office, as well as noting that my reading, as it often is, had been largely of early twentieth century novels and stories set in Central Europe. This year I have failed to buy fewer books but succeeded in reading far more than in 2015. I seem to have left inter-war Europe behind (why read about it when you can live through its recurrence?) and veering more to the contemporary, the recent over the deep past, and the Weird. If I see a theme, it’s apartness, loneliness, longing, regret, the road trip and the dreamlife of barflies.

 

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson: This is one of those novels that I’m not sure how come I’d not read it a long time ago, seeing as I’m generally a long-time drinking partner of the great American drunk writers (Yates, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Hemingway). My partner picked up a copy of The Lost Weekend in a bookshop in Vienna, finished it in one sitting and enthusiastically pressed it upon me, very confident that I would love it. And I did. It’s pretty much a faultlessly-written novel. The plot is simple. Would-be writer Don Birnham is left alone for three days, during which time he drinks a lot, drinks disastrously, drinks his own ruin and disaster again and again and without heed or epiphany. Insights along the way into how addicts fool themselves are profound and sobering (I’m trying not to use this word but none offer will suffice). More than this, the novel is a masterclass in how to construct scenes with few players, where mediation and inner voice carry the day (it’s hard, and often a mistake to write about characters who are mainly on their own). An early scene is a case in point. Don is ensconced in a Manhattan bar. Hitting the rye, he convinces himself that he’s going to write a great novel, ‘In the Glass’, about a man hitting the rye in a Manhattan bar. In a flash, he sees it all, from ‘its brilliant opening to the last beautiful note of wise and grave irony’. A few drinks later, it’s all fallen away and ‘the whole thing was so much eyewash’. A novel for anyone who has ever found themselves staring at the optics, too alone for their own good.

 

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing: Charles Jackson didn’t appear much in Olivia Laing’s previous book The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking, though he could have easily ingratiated himself into a round-system with its subjects: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Berryman, Carver, Cheever, Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. That book mixed biographical vignettes with a road trip around America, the author’s past explored along that way as a thematic sub-plot. The follow-up, again written in Laing’s starkly beautiful, brittle and precise prose, lacks the road trip element and has instead a still centre: a period in which Laing moved to New York and suffered from an almost debilitating solitude and friendlessness. During this stay, exposure to art and the lives of artists provided a grounding consolation. This time the vignettes are not of drunks but isolates and outsider artists, mainly denizens of the New York underground, including Hopper, Warhol and Nan Goldin. A book for anyone who has ever found themselves staring at the optics, too alone for their own good.

 

The Loney by Andrew Hurley: I have been reading more weird fiction recently, mainly by American authors like Laird Barron and Nathan Ballingrad. It was nice to come across a supernatural novel that emerges from under the overcoat of MR James and the English tradition of the eerie and the unsettling glimpse rather than Lovecraft or Stephen King. The Loney is a remote and bleak stretch of Lancashire coast where in the 1970s, the then fifteen-year old narrator Tonto accompanies his family on a Catholic pilgrimage with the aim of curing his mentally-challenged brother Hanny. During this trip, they discover what could be a ghastly conspiracy straight of The Wicker Man, a folk horror that in the present is revisited when the Loney is devastated by a flood. Assured, memorable and brimming with eccentric characters, this is a novel for anyone who fears that the deadening English past is returning to drown us all in the coldest of seas.

 

All Tomorrow’s Parties: A Memoir by Rob Spillman: I did take a little flit over to Berlin this year courtesy of Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House. All Tomorrow’s Parties alternates between an account of his childhood in West Berlin and subsequent failure to fit in as an adolescent in America, and the story of a return to Post-Wall Berlin as a newly-married, would-be writer ensconced in a Portuguese bar hitting the absinthe. Fortunately, Spillman proved not to be another Don Birnham. He had, though, set himself high standards for living by art and inspiration alone that he seemed bound to fail. Perfectionism and purity can be as dangerous a drink as the rye. That he found a way to realise his potential is inspiring indeed. A book for anyone who chose the long walk, or found themselves staring at the optics, dreaming of Berlin.

 

Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen: Europe, America and the road trip also features in Seraphina Madsen’s debut. It’s both her first novel and the first novel from Dodo Ink, a new independent publisher set up by Sam Mills and Tom Cuell (the latter, as the reviewer The Workshy Fop has been a good friend to Unthank and Unthology). Madsen’s story is superficially that of one sister looking for her missing sister, a psychedelic journey through an American dreamscape of hippy raves, cults, haunted forests and desert motels. The writing is shimmery, vivid, lit-up and bold and for me, sentence-by-sentence the most exciting prose I’ve read this year. A novel for anyone who thinks the better half of them is still out there and wants to be found.

 

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Ashley Stokes is Head of the Unthank School and teaches the Advanced Fiction Workshop in Norwich and the Online Fiction Workshop. Both are fully booked for January 2017, though there are spaces left on Workshops with Sarah Bower and Stephen Carver.