books

HOLLY WAINWRIGHT: The 17 books I simply can't live without.

Declutter is a word that should never be uttered around books. Books are not clutter. 

Books are everything else. Life. Experience. Empathy. Windows into other worlds. Entertainment. Distraction. Meaning. Lessons. Decoration. Life.  

But, it turns out, you can have too many. Especially if you're moving house

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I've spent large parts of my adult life carting sagging boxes of books from place to place. Unpacking them into Billy bookcases in damp share-houses, stacking them in optimistic bedside piles, organising and reorganising them in pleasing patterns, and giving up.  

I haven't moved house now for more than a decade. I've lived in my apartment with my family for the longest I've lived anywhere since the semi-detached home in northern England where I grew up. 

But now, we are moving, and the bookshelves have been (shudder) decluttered. 

In the process of packing, I've given away five enormous cardboard boxes of books in the past month. Spent hours going through the piles, dust coating everything, remembering others like missing friends, deciding what had to go to the charity shops (s - plural, no one charity shop wants five boxes of books).

But there were some - plenty, actually - that could not go. Will never go. I've read them all and I may never read them again, but I need them around. They are the books I can't live without.

Here are some of them:

1. Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

The book that changed my life. I was eight. 

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The original edition, with its line drawings of a serious, strange, rich child who lived in New York City and wrote copious, often cruel, notes about all her friends, her parents and her neighbours, is the only version I want. My original, tattered copy is in a box back in Manchester, England, but I bought one for my daughter, and read and re-read the story of Harriet, who wants to be a writer and who learns the hard way that not everyone wants to be the subject of her writing. A flawed heroine for the observant child. 

2. Heartburn by Norah Ephron

Contender for my favourite-ever book, and it's only about three-hours long. Norah Ephron wrote everything good, from screenplays - When Harry Met Sally - to memoir - I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts About Being A Woman - and Heartburn is a mixture of the two (and yes, it did become a movie, with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, but for my money, don't bother). 

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Norah was, IRL, married to Carl Bernstein, a Washington political reporter who, with colleague Bob Woodward, basically brought down a government (Watergate, you might have heard of it). He also cheated on Norah and ran off with one of her friends, not long after the birth of their son. Heartburn is a thinly-veiled memoir/novella based on that time - and it is masterful. 

Rachel, our heroine, is a food-writer, and the story of her excruciating public heartbreak is scattered with recipes, which add brightness to a difficult tale - what kind of cake do you bake to throw at your husband at a dinner party? What is the absolutely perfect comfort food to patch the most shattered of dreams? It's Heartburn's humour and light touch that make it actual genius. Full of pain, and heart and laughter-snorts. Read it, immediately.

3. Freedom by Johnathan Franzen

I know that Franzen is a bit of a d**k. I know that big American novels by white, male boomers are problematic. But both this book and The Corrections are absolutely breathtaking in their scope and skill and Freedom, in particular, I can never let go of because of Patty. 

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She's another difficult woman, devastatingly betrayed as a teenage rape victim, not married to the man she loves, shunned by her own son, whose veneer of suburban perfection crumbles so completely as you turn the pages.

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4. The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd

A book that brought colonial Australian history to life for me. Sarah Murgatroyd was a spectacular British writer, who meticulously researched and wrote this vivid account of Burke and Wills' deadly exploration of Australia's centre just before she died, much too young, in 2002. 

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It's such a wonderful book about a brutal and foolish endeavour, I often wonder what she would have written next. And I often wonder about the bottomless arrogance of the white invaders who thought this country could somehow be conquered and explained by a party of 19 men, some camels and a grand piano. 

5. NW by Zadie Smith

White Teeth by Zadie Smith was one of those publishing "sensations" that defined a moment in time. She was only 21 when she wrote most of it, which is astonishing and as unusual as lightening striking twice. I loved it. But I really loved NW, named after a London post code, that came over a decade later and explores one of my favourite things to explore - how where we come from defines who we are. 

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In NW, four characters (but mostly I cared about two, the women, Leah and Natalie) start on a council estate in (yes, NW) north-west London, and take very different paths. Natalie becomes a barrister living in a fancy house with her husband and kids far from the estate, secretly arranging hook-ups with swingers. Leah never left the neighbourhood and is taking birth control while pretending to "try" for a baby with her husband. It's brilliant, crackling and insightful, and it contains the observation that the experience of childbirth is like "meeting yourself at the end of a dark alley" which is the most apt description of labour I've ever read.

6. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

Some books are about plot and some are about place. I couldn't really recount the plot of The Shipping News to you (well, I could, it's about a man starting again in somewhere distant and strange) despite my love for it - but the marriage of Proulx's strange, staccato writing style and the portrait of Canada's extreme Newfoundland is... I don't think there's another word other than evocative. 

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Dialogue like: "Remember we had a yellow day on Monday – the sky cast was an ugly yellow like a jar of piss". Descriptions of weather like: "The sullen bay rubbed with thumbs of fog". Like Jane Harper's Australian novels, her book is so firmly rooted in the landscape if would require excavation to separate. This book, as my daughter would say, is a vibe. 

7. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

"I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973," is about the second line in The Lovely Bones.

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Another 'big' book (a movie followed, of course, directed by Peter Jackson), it was all people were talking about for about a year. The premise, as you can guess from the opener, is that Susie Salmon is narrating from beyond the grave, observing all that happened after her death, and she wants her community to find out who did this to her. She knows, and we know, but the town does not. Page-turner doesn't cover it, it's an aching masterclass in plot propulsion.

8. Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller

Zoe Heller is an American journalist who wrote profiles and opinion for the British broadsheets I read when I was just learning that I wanted to write. I love her work. I love her feature pieces and I love her books. 

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This one was turned into a movie with Cate Blanchett and Judy Dench, and if that wasn't fancy enough for you it also has the distinction of being about a (then) zeitgeisty topic - a female teacher who has a sexual relationship with her male student. It's clever and sharp and sometimes I read it when I want to remember how to write. 

9. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

When I was about 12 or 13, my mum took me to see Maya Angelou speak in a drafty hall in Manchester, because I had read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Angelou's 1969 memoir of growing up in segregated Arkansas. Angelou's experience could not be further from where or how I grew up, but adolescent me was deeply moved by that book. 

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It starts with Maya being sent to live with her grandmother at three, follows her through her experience of rape, aged only eight, through her experiences of constant, systematic racism and poverty, and closes (ready for the next volume) at her as a 16-year-old mother. It's bleak, but it's glitteringly hopeful and also, just beautifully written. 

The story goes that Angelou's publisher challenged her at 40 to write an autobiography that was also a "work of literature". It's doubtful she needed that challenge. That Manchester afternoon is burnt in my formative brain. She read her then-newish Still I Rise poem to the damp northern English crowd and I can still feel it. I knew I was witnessing someone whose words had made them powerful.

10. Wellmania by Brigid Delaney

Funny. On point. Brilliantly observed. When I was writing How To Be Perfect, about bogus "wellness influencers", I was heavily influenced by Brigid (author and The Guardian Australia journalist who has sometimes written for Mamamia). 

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Her book is non-fiction, and is a deeply recognisable account of trying to be "well" in a world of conflicting information and constant temptation. The book spans years and attempts at everything from an extended green-juice fasting detox that leaves Brigid so starving she almost snatches foods from strangers' hands, to yoga retreats and meditation challenges. Given what we're looking at in terms of fake health news in 2021, it was ahead of its time, and I refer to it often. 

11. This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

Look, it's difficult to choose just one Helen Garner book. But her account of the trial of Robert Farquharson, who murdered his three sons when he drove them into a dam in regional Victoria on Father's Day, 2005, has stayed with me the longest, so stays longest. 

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Her mixture of reporting and memoir is signature and incredibly powerful, and in This House Of Grief she manages to cover an unthinkable tragedy from all angles, somehow maintaining the humanity of everyone involved while never shying away from the horror of the loss of Jai, Tyler and Bailey, all of whom were under 10. It's not something a less skilled writer could ever do, and I imagine it's a thing my friend and colleague Jessie Stephens (who wrote Heartsickclearly already in the box) would excel at if she chose to. 

12. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a ghost story. A creepy, dark, unforgettably poignant one about America, race and the sins of slavery. It centres on former slave Sethe, who has started a new, "free" life in Cincinnati. But the ghosts from hundreds of years of trauma are real, and one day, a young woman turns up at Sethe's door and moves in.

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She's called 'Beloved', which is the only word Sethe could afford to have engraved on the tombstone of her own baby daughter. What happened to baby Beloved, and what happens inside Sethe's house as this unexplainable visitor settles in, is sinister, exquisitely drawn, and incredibly painful.

13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

The book that blew my young mind. In modern telling, In Cold Blood would be categorised as a narrative-non-fiction, true-crime masterpiece. But when I came across it as a teenager, I had never read anything that was anything like it. 

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Truman Capote was a novelist (you might have heard of Breakfast At Tiffany's?), a journalist, a gossip columnist, a celebrity taste-maker and man-about-town in 1950s/60s New York. You've seen Philip Seymour Hoffman play him with a hat and a lisp in Capote

This was the book that made him a star, and it's the true story of a small-town family massacre in Kansas, middle America. Capote travelled there, studied the town, interviewed everyone associated with the (yes) cold-blooded killing of the farming Klutter family, and then went and got to know (some might say, befriended) the men accused of their killing. It reads like a novel, hits incredibly hard, is morally ambiguous and is very difficult to imagine being bettered. 

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14. The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Another book about a place, but The Secret River is about so much more. It's about colonisation, the blood in our soil and the harsh restart faced by Australia's convict settlers. Set on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, the main character of William Thornhill is based on Garner's great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, who came to Australia a criminal for stealing some wood, and remade himself as a successful, wealthy landowner on the banks of a great river. But the land was already taken. 

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There was violence rarely spoken of between the First Nations people of the Hawkesbury and the colonisers, and The Secret River is a beautifully told, tragic novel that examines that terrible tension. There are scenes in this book that play in my head every time I visit the Hawkesbury, like a glitch rippling through the photogenic landscape.

15. A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I am over-using the term 'I think about this a lot', but I think about Goon Squad a lot. I often cite it as one of my favourite books because it surprised me more than almost any other. It was Egan's fourth novel, and it won a freaking Pullitzer Prize, if you don't mind. 

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What's it about? Well, it's hard to say, but let's start with the fact it's not so much one long narrative, but 13 stories that all intersect. All the stories and all the characters have a connection to a big name in the music industry, a record company executive called Benny Salazar. So the world we're in is rock n roll, and the theme is time, jumping around as it does, between the 1970s and the imagined 2020s. It's surprising and it's prescient, because, although Egan did not guess that in 2020 we would all be inside, hiding from a viral enemy, she did easily pick that we would all be hypnotised by technology we didn't understand. So clever, so addictive, so good.

16. Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler 

Anne Tyler is my favourite fiction writer. Her books are about small lives, unremarkable characters and people doing often petty, selfish things. But I love the way she writes, in this unadorned way that tells you everything without flourish or indulgence. She's funny and wise, and I aim to one day be half as good. 

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I could have picked any of her books, because I have read them all, but Homesick Restaurant is probably the "best", objectively speaking. It's about a Baltimore family (all Tyler's books are set in Baltimore, where she lives) through the eyes of dying matriarch, Pearl Tull, who is a classic Tyler character. She thinks her adult children are all a bit flawed, a bit selfish, a bit untethered, and she's examining the part she had to play in that. 

17. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

So, Sittenfeld wrote my favourite book of last year, the acclaimed Rodham, a reimagining of Hillary Clinton's life. But I'm not choosing that one, even though I also can't throw that out, either. I'm choosing Eligible because of the impact it had on my life. 

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Bear with me when I tell you that it's a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice set in the era of The Bachelor - because that makes it sound terrible, and it's anything but. Liz Bennett is a late-30s magazine writer who has to leave New York City to go home when her dad gets sick. Her sisters are either yoga instructors or obsessed with paleo and CrossFit, her mother wants to marry everyone off and an eligible contender looms in the form of a doctor turned reality-TV contestant. 

The reason I love it so is that Sittenfeld is a writer so skilled she can make anything sparkle, but also I just adored the clash of pop-culture references wrapped in a smart, funny package that wouldn't embarrass anyone caught reading it. Accessible fiction that doesn't talk down to anyone, it inspired me to write The Mummy Bloggers. Thanks, Curtis.

Holly Wainwright is the author of three novels - The Mummy BloggersHow To Be Perfect and I Give My Marriage A Year. You can buy any of them, here

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