My favourite reads: James Haines-Young

Here are five reads to escape the daily news cycle

When you spend your days staring at the often bleak stories breaking across the region, I found the best antidote to be escapism. I’ll admit that with two short stories on the list this may be cheating, but with time pressures, sometimes a tall tale in short word count is what you need.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)

I read Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War story of love and war while travelling in the area of northern Spain, where protagonist Robert Jordan plans his part in a major offensive against Franco’s forces. Walking some of the same streets he did some 80 years later, meant that this story, drawn from Hemingway’s own experiences covering the conflict, really stuck.

Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John Le Carre (1963)

Le Carre’s 240-page novel stood tall as dark, subtle and tense. Perhaps being published as a contemporary novel at the height of the early Cold War helped the writer skip some scene setting, but his gloomy, amoral account of espionage between Britain and the Soviet Union was striking at the time for depicting all sides as duplicitous as each other.

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling (1888)

A schooling in short story writing, Kipling creates what many novelists spend chapters weaving in a little over 20 pages. The tale of British adventurers who declare India “too small”, travel north into Afghanistan to set themselves up as kings, it’s striking for its apparent critique of colonialism – a surprise from a writer whose ideas are tied with the notion that Britain’s rule represented the march of progress.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (2014)

The story meanders like its central character – river Shannon in Ireland. It has no purpose other than to regale the life of a sickly teen as she strives to find her father in the library of books he left behind. Its full citation of each title and candid narrator makes it a diary that’s as much about the rural Irish landscape as the Swain family’s struggle with the Impossible Standard.

Break it Down by Lydia Davis (1986) 

Although Davis is sadly the only female writer on my list, she shows why she was a master of the short story format. Setting out with a cold, calculating account of his liaison in pure financial return is not the best way to engender your reader to your protagonist, but break it down and it does what it says on the tin and changes your idea of what the writer’s brief love cost.

James Haines-Young is The National’s Foreign Editor


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