3rd October 2019

Perusing the Guardian’s 100 best books of the 21st century list, I was appalled at how few I’d actually read (including some I’d bought and gave away before getting around to). Stealing the shape of this post from Jason Kottke, who has made his own selection, here are the books I’m clearing well-intentioned shelf space for:

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron — ”Ephron’s brand of smart theatrical humour is on best display in her essays. Confiding and self-deprecating, she has a way of always managing to sound like your best friend – even when writing about her apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. This wildly enjoyable collection includes her droll observations about ageing, vanity – and a scorching appraisal of Bill Clinton.”

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli — “A theoretical physicist opens a window on to the great questions of the universe with this 96-page overview of modern physics. Rovelli’s keen insight and striking metaphors make this the best introduction to subjects including relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, elementary particles and entropy outside of a course in advanced physics.”

On Writing by Stephen King — “Written after a near-fatal accident, this combination of memoir and masterclass by fiction’s most successful modern storyteller showcases the blunt, casual brilliance of King at his best. As well as being genuinely useful, it’s a fascinating chronicle of literary persistence, and of a lifelong love affair with language and narrative.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot — “Henrietta Lacks was a black American who died in agony of cancer in a “coloured” hospital ward in 1951. Her cells, taken without her knowledge during a biopsy, went on to change medical history, being used around the world to develop countless drugs. Skloot skilfully tells the extraordinary scientific story, but in this book the voices of the Lacks children are crucial – they have struggled desperately even as billions have been made from their mother’s ‘HeLa’ cells.”

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon — “A love story to the golden age of comics in New York, Chabon’s Pulitzer-winner features two Jewish cousins, one smuggled out of occupied Prague, who create an anti-fascist comic book superhero called The Escapist. Their own adventures are as exciting and highly coloured as the ones they write and draw in this generous, open-hearted, deeply lovable rollercoaster of a book.”

Underland by Robert Macfarlane — “A beautifully written and profound book, which takes the form of a series of (often hair-raising and claustrophobic) voyages underground – from the fjords of the Arctic to the Parisian catacombs. Trips below the surface inspire reflections on ‘deep’ geological time and raise urgent questions about the human impact on planet Earth.”

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín — “Eilis makes a life for herself in New York, but is drawn back by the possibilities of the life she has lost at home. A universal story of love, endurance and missed chances, made radiant through Tóibín’s measured prose and tender understatement.”

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett — “Pratchett’s mighty Discworld series is a high point in modern fiction: a parody of fantasy literature that deepened and darkened over the decades to create incisive satires of our own world. … Displays all his fierce intelligence, anger and wild humour, in a story that’s moral, humane – and hilarious.”

Outline by Rachel Cusk — “This startling work of autofiction, which signalled a new direction for Cusk, follows an author teaching a creative writing course over one hot summer in Athens. She leads storytelling exercises. She meets other writers for dinner. She hears from other people about relationships, ambition, solitude, intimacy and ‘the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women’. The end result is sublime.”

Normal People by Sally Rooney — “Rooney’s second novel, a love story between two clever and damaged young people coming of age in contemporary Ireland, confirmed her status as a literary superstar. Her focus is on the dislocation and uncertainty of millennial life, but her elegant prose has universal appeal.”

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — “To read her story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell at the Tudor court, detailing the making of a new England and the self-creation of a new kind of man, is to step into the stream of her irresistibly authoritative present tense and find oneself looking out from behind her hero’s eyes. The surface details are sensuously, vividly immediate, the language as fresh as new paint; but her exploration of power, fate and fortune is also deeply considered and constantly in dialogue with our own era, as we are shaped and created by the past.”