Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Literary Nostalgia: Back to Y2K!

On Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I decided to indulge in a bit of literary nostalgia… looking back at a few of my favourite books published in the year 2000 (can you believe that’s nearly two decades ago?). You can listen to show again on the player at the bottom of this post, but, as promised, here’s the list of books I talked about this week.

Did I miss your favourite? Do you disagree with my choices? Let me know in the comments!

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I was quite surprised by how much unreliable narrators, narrative twists and stories-within-stories dominated today’s reading list. Clearly 2000 was the year that cemented my love of these particular narrative features. And kicking off with The Blind Assassin really brings these to the fore. Atwood’s award-winning novel opens with Iris Chase, a woman in her 80s who has decided to write a memoir. Iris describes her childhood home, Avilion, and her younger sister Laura. We learn early on that Laura has killed herself, and Iris’s memoir is, ostensibly, intended to explain the circumstances leading to this. Iris describes how their mother died, and their dad turned to drink. And then Iris is married to businessman Richard Griffen and the women meet political activist Alex Thomas, which alters everything.

Intertwined with Iris’s memoir are sections of a novel Laura ‘left behind’ on her death, which Iris had published, creating an intense posthumous fame for her sister. The protagonists and setting of the novel are unnamed, but the story appears to reflect on an affair between Laura and Alex. And we get a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, as the protagonists tell each other tales about the shared imaginary world of Zycron, and the city of Sakiel-Norn. The eponymous ‘Blind Assassin’ appears in one of these stories, rescuing a sacrificial virgin who has had her tongue cut out. The stories come together in interesting ways, revealing the truth at the heart of Iris and Laura’s story.

Atwood’s novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2000, and the Hammett Prize in 2001.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The next book was also a prize-winner (it seems I read a lot of a lit-fic in 2000). Chabon’s novel won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. It tells the story of Sammy Klayman, who lives in New York City, and his cousin Josef Kavalier, who comes to live with him after escaping Nazi-occupied Prague. The two young men discover that they each have talents – Joe is artistic, while Sammy is entrepreneurial (and a bit of a storyteller) – and they go to work for Empire Novelty. The owners of this company want to recreate the success of Superman, and they realize they can use Joe and Sammy to break into the comic book business. And so, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, a superhero who fights fascism.

Chabon’s novel is a really engrossing read, as it charts the two men’s lives, loves and fears. The Escapist comes to represent much more than a comic book hero, embodying the powerful need for ‘escape’ that runs through both men’s lives. Some events in the book are based on the lives of real comic creators, including Jack Kirby (to whom the book is dedicated in its afterword), and various real-life figures make cameos in the book. But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is more than a nostalgic homage to comics, there’s social and political commentary (on fascism, but also on sexuality, masculinity and identity) and a healthy dose of metafictional analysis too. Unsurprisingly (if you’ve read the book), there hasn’t been a film adaptation. But there have been some graphic novel ‘spin-offs’: Michael Chabon Presents the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #1 (2004) and Brian K. Vaughan’s The Escapists (2006).

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I’ll admit I didn’t read this book in 2000. Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel was originally published in French, and the English translation (published in two volumes) came out in 2003-2004 (and I read the English version). Book 1 is set in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution, and it charts Marji’s childhood and young adulthood, offering a child’s view of the Revolution. We see Marji learn about her family’s background, which leads her to learn more about the Revolution and its impact on the country. In Book 2, Marji travels to Vienna to attend French school, and the book follows her through her education, return to Tehran, marriage and divorce.

Persepolis has a very distinctive style, not least because of its use of the graphic novel format for a political and social memoir. The artwork is black-and-white, and the book’s dialogue is conversational in tone – often at odds with the darkness of the pictures. The book has been adapted for film: the 2007 animated adaptation was co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, and featured the voice acting of Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Danielle Darrieux and Simon Abkarian.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

This is a book that’s had a few mentions on the show, and regular listeners will know that it’s a bit controversial in my house (I loved it, but my husband hated it). Continuing the accidental theme of today’s list, it’s also full of unreliable narrators and stories-within-stories, and like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it’s never really been considered adaptable. So what is House of Leaves about? Well, that’s the question…

The book begins with a first-person narrative, told by a character called Johnny Truant. Truant is searching for an apartment, and learns that a man called Zampanó has died and that his flat might be available to rent. Inside Zampanó’s apartment, Truant finds a manuscript. It’s an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record – though Truant tells us that no such film ever existed. House of Leaves then becomes a series of interwoven narratives, including Truant’s story, Zampanó’s report, transcripts of sections of the film, interviews with people involved with The Navidson Record, and a series of letters (The Whalestoe Letters) from Truant’s mother.

House of Leaves is probably best known for its formal and stylistic experimentation. Presentation and layout are used in unorthodox ways to reveal and obscure the meaning of the story/stories: individual words are picked out in certain colours; text moves around the page in labyrinthine patterns; some pages bear only a single word; footnotes appear and take over from the main text. It’s a disconcerting book, which is more a reading experience than a story. I still really like it (and my husband still really doesn’t).

Baudolino by Umberto Eco

This is another book I didn’t read in 2000. Eco’s novel was first published in Italian, and the English translation by William Weaver (who translated much of Eco’s fiction) was published in 2002. Eco’s The Name of the Rose has had quite a few mentions on the show, so it was good to give a bit of attention to Baudolino, which (in some ways) I like even better than the earlier novel.

And we have another unreliable narrator – though in this case, he’s deliberately and openly so. The book begins in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. Baudolino of Alessandria has arrived during the carnage, and saves the life of Niketas Choniates. He then begins to tell Niketas his life story, beginning in 1155 when, as an educated Italian peasant boy, he is sold into the court of Frederick I. Baudolino’s story takes on the character of a tall tale, as he describes journeying to Paris to become a scholar, meeting the Archpoet, Abdul, Robert de Boron and Kyot, and learning about mythical Christian king Prester John. Baudolino and his band undertake a quest to find Prester John, meeting unicorns, Blemmyes, skiapods, pygmies, and other fanciful creatures – as well as some pretty dangerous human ones.

Though it has its dark moments, Baudolino is more light-hearted than Name of the Rose. It’s a story about stories – the way they’re told, the things they mean – and the relationship between stories and lies.

The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

And now for something completely different…

The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic is the first in Kinsella’s Shopaholic series. It was published as Confessions of a Shopaholic in the US, and this title has become slightly better known (on both sides of the Atlantic).

Kinsella’s novel introduces us to Becky Bloomwood, an insecure financial journalist who is deeply in debt (and, to be fair, knows very little about the financial world). Becky just can’t stop buying stuff, calling everything she wants a ‘necessity’ or an ‘investment’. She is chided by her parents and pursued by her bank manager as a result. At a press conference, Becky is narrowly saved from making a fool of herself by Luke Brandon, who helps her cover up her lack of knowledge. Will Becky and Luke’s acquaintance become something deeper? Will Becky admit she has a problem and address her overspending? Will the bank manager finally catch up with her? These are the questions that kept readers turning the pages of Kinsella’s chick-lit best-seller. (And, I guess, it’s appropriate to end a show full of unreliable narrators with a character who isn’t so much lying to the reader, as lying to herself.)

Kinsella followed this first books with seven more: Shopaholic Abroad (2001); Shopaholic Ties the Knot (2002); Shopaholic and Sister (2004); Shopaholic and Baby (2007); Mini Shopaholic (2010); Shopaholic to the Stars (2014); Shopaholic to the Rescue (2015). The first book (with a bit taken from the second) was adapted into a film in 2009, and it starred Isla Fisher and Hugh Dancy.

To find out more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here:

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