Tracey Thorn: 'I managed 10% of War and Peace during lockdown'

The singer, songwriter and author on struggling with Tolstoy, learning from Billie Holiday, and the book to give fans of Joy Division

The book I am currently reading
Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels by Justin Vivian Bond. A memoir of trans/queer childhood from the cabaret performer whom I’ve been lucky enough to see on stage at Joe’s Pub in New York. I wish I could be back in that room right now, but in the meantime, this book will suffice.

The book that changed my mind
There were books I read at university that completely opened my mind. I would count among them Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, the poetry of William Blake, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and the poetry of Sylvia Plath.

The book I think is most underrated
Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues. For years it was out of print, and also semi-dismissed for its inaccuracy, and its omissions, legal threats having forced her to leave out some of her liaisons with famous men and women. I read it as a teenager when I was discovering Holiday’s music, and learning things about different ways to sing powerfully. It would be a very long time before I’d read another music memoir that was as frank and revealing, and that had such a distinctive voice.

Billie Holiday with her dog Mister, 1947.
Billie Holiday with her dog Mister, 1947. Photograph: MediaPunch Inc/Alamy

The book I wish I’d written
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I still can’t get over the fact that an 18-year-old, on holiday with two radical poets, came up with an idea for a gothic horror novel that was so successful it has endured for 200 years.

The last book that made me laugh
Kevin Barry’s That Old Country Music. This recent collection of stories is beautiful, and filled with lines that made me shout with laughter.

The last book that made me cry
In the End, It Was All About Love by Musa Okwonga: a story of heartbreak, loneliness and racism in Berlin. Beautifully told, and the unflinching honesty moved me so much.

The book I give as a gift
Always something different, depending on the giftee. For Christmas I gave Ben [Watt, her husband] a copy of Bass, Mids, Tops: An Oral History of Sound System Culture by Joe Muggs and Brian David Stevens. I gave one daughter a Joan Didion, and the other a book about the brain, and as he’s a huge fan of Joy Division and New Order, my youngest received Record Play Pause by Stephen Morris.

The book I’d like to be remembered for
I think it’s more likely that I’ll be remembered for a single line of a song, about deserts and rain, than for anything else I’ll ever write. And far more likely that in fact I won’t be remembered at all, which is fine.

The book I couldn’t finish
I started Tolstoy’s War and Peace during lockdown, and got 10% of the way through it according to my Kindle, which didn’t seem bad going, all things considered. I was enjoying it but my brain just doesn’t have the stamina right now.

My comfort read
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. A woman gets tired of being used as a doormat and so, reaching a certain age, she goes to live alone in the country, where she finds true happiness and discovers she is a witch. I take great solace in this idea.

My Rock’n’Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn is published by Canongate (£16.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.

Tracey Thorn

The GuardianTramp

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