On Hannah’s Bookshelf this week (on North Manchester FM), I decided to have a bit of a nostalgia-trip to the year when I became a teenager… 1991. I picked out a selection of my favourite books published that year and talked about them on the show, accompanied (of course) by a selection of some classic pop tunes from 1991. As promised on the show, here’s a rundown of the books that were featured this week. You can also listen to the whole show on the player at the end of this post.
The Liar was Stephen Fry’s first novel, and it features the utterly unreliable narrator Adrian Healey. Interspersed with enigmatic chapters in third person that describe various acts of espionage, the story of Adrian’s life is described, with a focus on three key moments in his life: his time at public school, his time at a (fictional) Cambridge college, and his time assisting his tutor Donald Trefusis in an international intrigue. I’ve mentioned my fondness for unreliable narrators on the show before, and Adrian is a great example. It’s probably best to keep the title of the book in mind as you’re reading, because Adrian’s story is often very very convincing! A number of reviewers have also pointed out similarities between incidents in the novel and those recounted in Fry’s autobiography Moab is My Washpot (1997).
Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, A Thousand Acres tells the story of Larry Cook, the irascible (and increasingly unhinged) owner of a farm in Iowa. When Larry unexpectedly announces that he intends to leave farming and pass ownership of the farm to his three daughters – Ginny, Rose and Caroline – the Cook family is thrown into turmoil. The book is told from the perspective of Ginny, a farmer’s wife and Larry’s main caretaker. Ginny and her sister Rose raised Caroline after their mother’s death, and encouraged to leave the farm to practice law in Des Moines. With Larry’s announcement and the return of Jess Clark, their neighbour’s prodigal son, Ginny and Rose must face up to what the future might hold for them – but they also have to deal with the shadows of the past. A Thousand Acres is an interesting reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with Ginny and Rose offering up an fascinating altered perspective on Goneril and Regan. The book was adapted for film in 1997, with Jessica Lange as Ginny, Michelle Pfeiffer as Rose, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Caroline.
Jacqueline Wilson’s novel tells the story of ten-year-old Tracy Beaker, who lives in a children’s home (rather unaffectionately known as ‘The Dumping Ground’). Tracy is an unhappy and badly behaved girl, who was taken into care after suffering neglect at the hands of her mother. When Cam Lawson visits the home to write an article about the children, Tracy decides to help her out by telling her own story, and the two eventually bond. Written as a series of diary entries and filled with exaggeration, anger, honesty, creativity and sadness, The Story of Tracy Beaker is a very entertaining and original read. It was followed by sequels The Dare Game (2000) and Starring Tracy Beaker (2006), and was adapted into a very successful CBBC series starring Dani Harmer as Tracy and Lisa Coleman as Cam.
I talked a bit (okay… a lot) on the show about Generation X and how I feel about belonging (just) to the generation of people known as ‘slackers’, ‘latchkey kids’ and the ‘MTV generation’. Obviously, it seemed appropriate to discuss the book that popularized the term. Coupland’s book was a sleeper hit, but it defined a certain zeitgeist of the early 1990s. The book takes a look at the lives of three protagonists who live in Southern California – Andy, Claire and Dag – and the ways they attempt to navigate life in ‘an accelerated culture’. Andy works as a barman – a ‘McJob’ (the other term that was popularized by Coupland) – and is trying to free himself from the pressures of a materialistic, capitalist culture. Dag is a Canadian who lives in fear of nuclear war, and Claire is torn between the freer ‘true’ existence of Dag and Andy, and the relationship she is building with yuppie Tobias. The novel’s structure is interesting: it has a frame narrative, but then fragments into stories told by different characters (some of which are made up), with Parts 2 and 3 introducing various new characters into the mix. The book feels a little dated now, and its focus is very SoCal, but rereading it brings back something of the cultural atmosphere of the early 90s like catching a whiff of perfume on an old set of clothes. I particularly enjoy the chapter titles, as they’re pretty much slogans for a generation: for instance, ‘I Am Not a Target Market’, ‘Purchased Experiences Don’t Count’, ‘MTV Not Bullets’.
This is the second book in de Bernières’ Latin American trilogy, which began with The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (1990) and continued with The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992). While this trilogy isn’t as well known as de Bernières’ fourth novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), I actually prefer them. Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord is set in a fictional Latin American country (with echoes of Pinochet’s Chile and 1970s Uruguay). When the eponymous philosophy lecturer, Dionisio Vivo, writes a series of letters and articles condemning drug barons and the government, he is brought to the attention of ruthless coca lord El Jerarca. His unbelievable escapes from El Jerarca’s assassins sees Vivo elevate to the position of saviour (or Messiah) in many people’s eyes, and women from around the country begin to follow him in the hope of bearing his child. The story is deeply inspired by the magical realist tradition, and it’s quite a dizzingly surreal read at times. But it’s also got a lot of quite searing satire in it as well, and its targets are pretty clear. Personally, I think the third book is even better than the second – but I’d recommend working through the whole trilogy to be fully immersed in this off-beat little world.
Okay, so this one is a little bit of a cheat, as the English translation of the book didn’t come out until 1995, and on previous shows I’ve always used the date of the first English version of the book (if I originally read it in English, of course). But Gaarder’s Sofies verden was published in its original Norwegian in 1991, so I’ve decided it counts for this show. Gaarder’s novel begins with 14-year-old Sophie Amundsen receiving some mysterious communications: several messages and a postcard addressed to a girl called Hilde Møller Knag, then a packet of papers beginning a course in the history of philosophy. Sophie becomes the pupil of Alberto Knox, who leads her through the history of philosophy from the Pre-Socratics onwards, attempting to give the young girl the tools to answer the questions: ‘Where do we come from?’, ‘What are thoughts?’ and ‘Are we living in a dream?’ While Knox teaches Sophie about the ways in which people (mostly – as young Sophie herself points out – men) have attempted to answer those questions, the pair try and outwit the mysterious and seemingly omnipotent Albert Knag… before facing up to an astounding revelation. Gaarder’s book is a lively and engaging tale, with lots of information for those new to philosophy. And – maybe more importantly – it’s a really fun read.
To hear more about all of these books and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show again here: