Oct/Nov 2001 Book Reviews

Twenty-one: The Best of Granta Magazine

Ian Jack (Ed.)
Granta Books, Allen & Unwin (September 2001) 383 pages
ISBN: 1 86207 464 X

reviewed by Ann Skea

Has it really been twenty-one years since Granta began? Not so long ago I reluctantly parted with books from my bookshelves so that we had room for living and I decided that some of my Granta collection had to go. But it was a difficult choice. It can't have been half as difficult, however, as the choice Ian Jack had to make in selecting only twenty-one pieces for this anthology from a wealth of excellence.

Granta's first issue in 1979 presented a selection of new American writing. It contained some amazing experimental work and also a couple of rather dry essays but it was certainly like nothing I had read before. The intention, apparently, was to try and invigorate British writing. But Granta has never limited its horizons by sticking simply to "British" writing. It has gone on seeking out only what is "new and interesting but rarely complicated and confusing." A good eye (or perhaps it should be ear) for compelling writing has resulted over the years in a flow of good stories, be they fiction, reporting, travel, memoir, narrative, history--anything, in fact, which has "urgency and clarity."

The list of authors' names on the cover of this anthology demonstrates the quality of Granta's choices. Most of these writers were little known when their work was first published in Granta. Now, frequently, new work by established authors is featured, but there is always something completely new, and photo-essays have become part of the format.

In this anthology, Norman Lewis tells of his mad Welsh aunts, Harold Pinter briefly mourns a lost story and a lost love, Nadine Gordimer writes of strangers and fear in an African township, James Fenton lives through a snap-election in the Philippines, Martha Gellhorn changes her mind about Germans, Jonathan Miller impersonates a chicken and confesses to having no sense of humour, Adam Mars Jones remembers a Bear with Aids, Leonard Michaels writes wickedly about a Men's Club, and, and, and... there is so much more.

I remember reading some of these pieces. Others I had completely forgotten. All, I enjoyed reading again. So, if you value good writing and you don't already know Granta, try it. If you do already know it, enjoy it again or buy it for your best friends. It is rare to find such a store of good writing in such a compact and inexpensive paperback.


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