Here’s my list of the top 10 books of 2014 from the Observer. I plump for The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton as the Read of the Year, a wonderful debut novel. As suggested, I’m not saying that The Miniaturist is perfect. It has been a controversial book in some ways, which is what worries me slightly about debut novels becoming massive: they get over-hyped and over-scrutinised and then when people eventually get round to reading it, they’re disappointed because it’s not the greatest thing they ever read in the history of the world ever ever. (Which it can’t be because it’s a debut.) It’s a tricky situation because in order to get anyone interested in debut novels at all, publishers really do have to pull out all the stops and they did on this book. Still, it is the book of the year for its immense success – and it’s an enjoyable read. Indeed.
Cover pic: Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina
A rare outing in the FT. On Russia’s literary status and whether the glory days of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are ever coming back again.
‘In rankings of the world’s literary greats, Russia tends to figure more prominently than any other country. Anna Karenina, War and Peace, the stories of Anton Chekhov and Lolita (written in English and self-translated into Russian) are unfailingly on such lists, alongside Shakespeare, Proust, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Flaubert and George Eliot. And that’s without even mentioning Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Pasternak and, of course, Dostoevsky, the writer who did down-to-earth plain-speaking just as beautifully as Tolstoy did lofty spirituality. From Notes from the Underground: “I say let the world go to hell but I should always have my tea.”’
Thrilled to contribute to this series of tributes to funny women in the Times — Caitlin Moran on Judy Garland, Ruth Jones on Dawn French, Ruby Wax on Joanna Lumley… Maureen Lipman chose Lucille Ball. I was away on holiday when this came out and the copy my parents kept for me has got a bit, er, crumpled as you can see below. I’m writing about Sue Townsend, who I have always loved:
I enjoyed reading J. Randy Taraborrelli’s new biography of the Hiltons for the Sunday Telegraph. I had no idea that the founding father of the dynasty — Paris’s great-grandfather Conrad — had such a fantastic back story. He started with nothing, encouraging his parents to open up their ramshackle family home in New Mexico as a down-at-heel B&B when he was just sixteen. Like so many entrepreneurs, he had a series of jaw-dropping ups and downs (and several near-bankrupcy moments during the Great Depression) before “Hilton hotels” became something special. Of course, Paris is the icing on the cake. And she really does do everything with Peter Pan (her chihuahua). Unless that’s just for the cameras. Which I suspect it is. She’s all about “the brand”…
From the cover of today’s Observer magazine: “Since the Ukraine crisis, London’s growing Russian population has been faced with a major identity crisis… “There are two sides to this story. And they are both right.” Galina Pentecost sighs. People like clean-cut, easy-to-follow narratives. This isn’t one.”"
Well, that’s certainly an understatement. Over 300 comments and counting… A hard-won cover story for the Observer magazine on the view on the Ukrainian situation from Londongrad and the 150,000 Russians who have made Britain their home. Obviously there’s a nod to the situation involving the high-profile incomers who are often in the headlines (like Abramovich and Usmanov). But I really wanted to make this story about the cultural effects on Russians who have been here a long time (many who are married to Brits and hold British passports). It wasn’t an easy story to tell and I’m really pleased with the response.
The 150,000 figure is the best estimate around. Fox TV’s reality show Meet the Russians put the estimate up at 300,000 but I couldn’t find anything else that backed this up so I stuck with the more conservative estimate.
I really wanted to get in a mention of Vitali Vitaliev’s new book for children, Granny Yaga, based on the old Slavic fairytale — but it didn’t make the edit. Shame because it’s a great parable: in the original story Baba Yaga “may either help or hinder travellers” and it is hard to work out whether she is heroine, villainess or just ambiguous. Sound familiar? A situation where it’s hard to work out who is evil and who is going to save you? For a lot of the people commenting, it’s obvious which way round it is. But for Russians, it’s not so clear-cut.
Interesting response to these two pieces on Mother’s Day. In the Times on maternal guilt — are we the most guilty generation of mothers ever to walk the earth? I suggested that possibly we are. And Professor Tanya Byron cautioned that over-guilty parenting can, ironically, have a detrimental effect on children — so that the very thing you’re working hard to avoid (damaging your kids) becomes the thing you cause. Didn’t want to think too much about that in case I felt guilty. (Joke. I generally don’t feel guilty.) Twitter response: “Totally agree. ‘Guilt is just your ego’s way of tricky you into thinking you’re making progress.’” “I resist the G word and agree with Tanya: if felt, do something to nip it in the bud and squash it.” “Hear, hear. As a mum on the road, I’m not even at home for Mother’s Day. How much guilt does that involve?”
And in the Guardian on mothers and criticism, I wrote about the strange, passive-aggressive things that mothers and daughters say to each other. “One thing you could try is not sleeping with everyone.” That’s probably still top of the list (from a US-based blog post). Mostly people identified and had their own horror stories (and were glad of the opportunity to move away from the saccharine image of Mother’s Day). But there was some feeling that this idea was “anti-feminist” (i.e. women should support each other and not be bitchy to each other — the trouble is, in real life it is not always thus…).
And a couple of commenters wondered where the dads were in this. I put in some comments about fathers in my original copy but it was felt (by the editor) that this was a piece about Mother’s Day and so it should centre on mothers… I’m intrigued that some people are uncomfortable with the idea that mothers and daughters say nasty things to each other. I know they don’t *all* do this and this is not everyone’s experience of life. But it is a thing that most people recognise and that’s why I wanted to write about it. Also otherwise I would never have heard (via Twitter) of the mother who said, whilst looking at a photo of her daughter as a teenager: “You look like Meatloaf.”
Cover pic by Katherine Rose for the Observer.
I went to Stockholm for the Observer with my seven-year-old to test-drive the world’s best-selling kids’ apps for three- to five-year-olds, Toca Boca. It’s a pretty impressive outfit, run by a publishing house set up in 1804 and with an eye on the long-term – instead of on a fast buck. I’m still not convinced they have any educational merit but they definitely match with Google’s aim – “do no harm”.
Extract: [Company founder] Jeffery explains that it is just supposed to be fun. Nothing more, nothing less. Toca Boca divides children’s activities into five categories: active play (sport), make-believe, manipulative play (building stuff), creative play (drawing) and learning play (books and games). “Most children like all five types of play. But then you look at the app store and think: ‘How is it addressing these types of play?’ Everything in the app store is in the last category – games and books. But that’s how adults play. It’s Candy Crush, basically.”
Thrilled to interview Siri Hustvedt (over the phone from New York) about her new novel The Blazing World. It tells the extraordinary story of a woman artist who achieves acclaim by posing behind the personae of three male artists. As a woman she is ignored. Once people think she’s a man, she’s the toast of the Manhattan art world.
This is a brilliant companion piece to one of my favourite novels of all time, What I Loved. Hustvedt: “Harry – the artist Harriet Burden – is right that there is a “masculine enhancement effect”. The arts are often thought of as “sort of feminine” and science as masculine. These divisions are underlying our perceptions. There are a number of other positions and perspectives that are meant to complicate the reader’s understanding of this story. There is no message. There is nothing simple about this.”
Writing in today’s Mail on Sunday about why people should never have affairs in the first place.
“Is it unrealistic to suggest that people just shouldn’t have affairs? Really, is it that outlandish an idea, to just keep your pants on when you’re with someone who is not your partner?
I am trying to avoid shouting here. Because it feels a bit like telling off a toddler. Don’t pick your nose. Don’t draw on the walls. No, you can’t have a fourth Frube. And no committing adultery. I have no sympathy. It’s childish.
I am not talking from personal experience. Yet. Just keeping my husband of 14 years on his toes there. Only joking. Because the thing is, I would not have an affair. Ever. And I know this. This is why I am married.
If I wanted to have an affair, I would stop being married.”
Sorry to anyone who was hoping to have an affair with me. *sound of George Clooney wailing and gnashing his teeth*
Covering for Liz Jones on the Mail on Sunday while she’s in the Big Brother house. On David Cameron’s £90 haircut (OK for women, never OK for a man — my only concession to inequality). And on Charles Saatchi. Who just won’t let it go, will he?
“This man has devoted his life to collecting beautiful things. And yet he has no taste or grace. I don’t say this because I am #TeamNigella. I am #TeamEnoughAlready. The curtain has come down on the pantomime, Charles. Let it go.”