Daisy Hay is the author of Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives and Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance, as well as a short book on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is due out in September. She is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Exeter and is currently writing a book about the circle gathered around the Romantic publisher Joseph Johnson.
Ever since I first read Alison Bechdel’s brilliant graphic memoir I’ve loved discussing it with students. The interplay of text and image is endlessly fascinating and I’m so admiring of the wit and compassion with which Bechdel evokes her family and the circumstances of her upbringing. Fun Home is a work of art: beautiful to look at, thought-provoking and funny. It is also a sociable and generous book which starts a conversation with the reader and which always makes me want to talk about it to others.
The Child that Books Built
Books about childhood reading are in vogue at the moment, but in a crowded market Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built remains my favourite. This will have you reminiscing about old friends but it will also move you and make you think. The chapter I return to most frequently deals with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter and it completely changed the way I thought about a book I’d adored as a child. Spufford is wonderful on the way reading changes us and his evocation of the literary landscape of his own childhood will almost certainly have you revisiting the titles he explores too.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I discovered this courtesy of my own book group, a fabulous group of local mothers who have got me reading contemporary fiction again after a long period in which my reading has been dominated by titles largely published in the late eighteenth century. Americanah has been the standout new discovery for me: its gaze is panoramic but it never loses sight of the characters and ideas that drive its plot forward. I read it compulsively and its canvas, which stretches across three continents, gave my book group plenty to talk about.
It is to Sybil that we owe the concept of ‘two nations … rich and poor’. Sybil isn’t widely read today which is a shame because its analysis of the problems besetting a country deeply divided along lines of class and wealth is acute. Disraeli is an uneven novelist and there are some passages in Sybil which verge on strange, but its combination of Condition-of-England politics, mystery and romance are guaranteed to get a good conversation going.
Finally, from a writer about whom I am passionate, a novel on the pleasures and perils of reading. Northanger Abbey is likely to be familiar already to many book club readers, but the delights of talking with others about more familiar literary delights aren’t to be underestimated. This isn’t my favourite Austen novel, but it is the one which I have always found generates particularly rich conversations with students about why and how we read, and I can’t think of a better subject for a book club discussion than that.