It’s that time of year again, where everything starts with ‘it’s that time of year again.’ As a self-defining nostalgiaphile, I tend to love anything with the words ‘in review’ at the end. However, not all ‘in reviews’ are fit for public consumption. One needs to be careful what one reads nowadays. Speaking of…
I must start by saying there was so much I enjoyed this year. I bolstered my advocacy with books on chronic pain, both for novel research and for my own edification. I read some feminist classics (including some Simone de Beauvoir – chic, right?!). I continued established love affairs with Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood, and fell in love anew with the work of Elizabeth Smart and Paul Kalanithi. In December, I had the unparalleled delight of wrapping my presents whilst listening to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I felt surprisingly festive, and even a tad moved by the whole experience – not least as this year the seasonal classic celebrated its 175th anniversary. Tell you what, not a bad writer, that Dickens chap.
A book in the hand is worth two in the ears?
For me, 2018 was a creatively fulfilling year. As such, it feels appropriate that I read more widely, across a more diverse range of genres than in previous years. This is to a large extent due to Audible, whose monthly tokens (and the occasional DNF return-and-exchange) have become a beacon of comfort and quiet excitement.
I have heard plays (e.g. Being There by Jerzy Kosinki; Love in Recovery by Pete Jackson; A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen), novels (including, but not limited to, The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood; Orlando by Virginia Woolf), memoirs (Heartburn by Nora Ephron; Undivided: Coming Out, Becoming Whole, and Living Free from Shame by Vicky Beeching) and self-help (Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe; The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown). Indeed, it wasn’t until coming to write this blog that I realised how much of my reading total this year is thanks to the gift of audiobooks. They really do make mundane household tasks so much shinier. I’ve enjoyed them whilst ironing, before going to sleep… I’ve even been known to listen while I work (as my work often consists of solely visual-based tasks).
However, the format has its downsides. The effect that an audiobook can have on one’s overall impression of a book is not negligible. Would I have enjoyed Animal Farm quite so much were it not for Simon Callow’s vivid rendition? Would I have paid more attention to the deep craft at play in poetry such as that of Richard Scott, whose Soho I enjoyed only so-so?
In this vein, one of this year’s biggest question marks for me rests upon Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This book remains almost uncontested as one of the stand-out reads of 2018 (though published in 2017), a top five Sunday Times bestseller and hugely celebrated by Emma Watson and her feminist book club Our Shared Shelf. I definitely get why this work of non-fiction is culturally important; indeed, ‘essential’ in its demanding ‘a future where we’ll no longer need such a book’, as previous Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James dubbed it.
My modern history is admittedly terrible, having never studied it at school (I’d say you can ask me anything you like about the Wars of the Roses but unfortunately I’ve forgotten all that too). As such, the sheer extent of the slave trade’s dark underbelly in this country was a crucial, though naturally upsetting, discovery for me; a point of no-return in my understanding. In many ways, Eddo-Lodge’s extended journalistic work did its job: it provoked an unsettling realisation of the systemic, institutionalised racism from which white people benefit, whether willingly or unknowingly. Our ignorance cannot be an excuse; our ignorance is our own to rectify. This book has really hammered that point home, and encouraged me to take on this responsibility by seeking out more to read and listen to on issues of race.
Why the internal conflict, then? A couple of things. Firstly, I must admit I was hoping the work would be more anecdotal in tone to supplement the no-nonsense factual content. I definitely found myself drifting a fair amount – partly due to the nonfiction element (the section on housing was one I found particularly challenging). For me personally, as someone who has simply not encountered that many conversations about race, some choice personal perspective would have really driven Eddo-Lodge’s points home. This was by no means the clincher, however. Most pressingly, the issue was listening to the audiobook. I’m certainly grateful for its existence – arguably I might not have made space for this book in 2018 quite so easily and cheerfully had it not. Be this as it may, the audiobook left me feeling less impressed than I expected to feel. Eddo-Lodge is clearly a lucid and engaged writer, but I do wish Audible had chosen someone else to bring her work to life (the version I listened to was read by the author and it was, well, a bit flat). Better yet, I wish that I had read this significant work by myself, to myself, to absorb in my own time. Some books, I’m learning, deserve to be alone with you, with nothing coming between you. Maybe this is one such.
2018 Goals in Review
Now to the goals I set for myself during last year’s book review. I did manage to exceed my reading target, despite the fact that it was increased from last year: I read a total of 43 books in 2018.
As a result of this, to my reckoning – and according to the list I keep on my phone – I have learned 58 new words from this year’s reading material. My favourite of this 58 is, without a doubt, ‘oleaginous’. It is so drippingly unnecessary, practically slippery in its excessiveness. It means to be oily, either in the sense of literally oozing oil / being oily in texture, or being exaggeratedly and distastefully complimentary (or both, if you are simultaneously both obsequious and a lasagne). Better still; the noun? ‘Oleaginousness.’ Look at the syllables on that thing. Dreams really do come true.
I also delved a little more into dystopian fiction, enjoying classics of the genre such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (whose name I regrettably cannot read without hearing Rachel Bloom’s comedy song about this giant of sci-fi) and the modern surely someday-classic, The Power by Naomi Alderman, which I found lived up to its hype and most grippingly too. I even dipped my toe in some Ursula Le Guin, although admittedly I did find that a little more hard-going. I still fully intend to press on with her book on Steering the Craft of writing, though; she’s clearly rather good. Plus, my copy was purchased for me by a beloved ex-boyfriend, so I can’t very well turn it out.
My aim of reading books by non-white authors and/or centred around non-white characters was not as well honoured as I had hoped I would make it. A last-minute surprise entry in this category, courtesy of one Fr. Christmas, was Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. I had been avoiding this (assumed) early draft and sort-of sequel of To Kill A Mockingbird, mainly because I’d heard it paints Atticus as having become racist in his old age, and I couldn’t bear the thought of destroying my favourite untouchable literary character. As it turned out, this was extremely apropos, as one of the central issues of Watchman is Scout Finch growing up and having to accept that she has made a ‘tin god’ out of her lawyer father. As anyone who has had the pleasure of reading To Kill A Mockingbird or watching the film will know, the story is centred around race relations in Southern USA. Watchman is also set in the same county of Maycomb, Alabama, though it tackles race relations from a very different, sometimes less clear-cut, perspective. I certainly feel I may need to re-read it for my opinion to crystallise, but it nonetheless definitely got me thinking about issues relating to prejudice, maturity, and race relations in the US then and now.
I also very much enjoyed Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a tender and perspicacious love story between two young refugees written by the Pakistan-born author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. These tomes notwithstanding, you can see I did not make good on my goal. Honestly, I got so excited by all the female authors I was recommended it just slipped down my list of priorities; something I will try to compensate for in the coming year. After all, the magic of books is that they can transport you into other people’s skins, and, if Reni Eddo-Lodge has taught me anything, it’s that I have a responsibility to recognise my own cultural biases and endeavour to inform and recalibrate them.
My Top Five
To conclude, here are my most favouritest books of 2018. It is pleasing that, not only are they my highest-rated on Goodreads, they also speak to the journey on which this year has taken me.
NB. After some deliberation, I have chosen not to highlight The Power by Naomi Alderman, even though it was cracking (or should I say, CRACKLING, eh?!… No, I shouldn’t.), and it does come with my most hearty recommendations. But for the purposes of this blog, it was just pipped to the post.
1. The Multi-Hyphen Method by Emma Gannon
I do love me some self-help and self-improvement books, but this manifesto for modern work-life was a departure from my usual penchant for soft pop-psychology and motivational speech. As a twenty-something with many strings (of varying length and endurance) to her proverbial bow of creative skills, this book was as enormously helpful as all the magazines professed it to be. Straight-talking, wise, practically-minded and warmly reassuring without being saccharine or meretricious (another from the new words of 2018 list…): this book is the work mentor/ ‘cool mom’ I, for one, desperately needed in this working climate.
2. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
I listened to this collection of short stories by Latinx writer Machado towards the end of October, and man, did I pick the right season; it ended up being the perfect Halloween read. As an excessively sensitive soul, I try to steer clear of the spooky, but made an exception for Her Body, and I’m so glad I did. Here is the instant review I wrote for Goodreads after the last short story faded in my ears:
I’m still reeling after finishing this book so let me offer some choice words, in the style of Albus Dumbledore: incredible, oddment, queer, spooky. Magical realism, playfully leaping in and out of genres like a dolphin showing off. Had to Google the plot of nearly all the stories afterwards to verify I had the right gist (listened on Audible which doesn’t help as I tend to snooze and miss key phrases). Feminist, sexy, shuddering. Will definitely be seeking out more of Machado’s work. Any brain that can cook that up belongs to a prophet and deserves to be followed.
3. The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom
After several years of fairly focused research, I feel comfortable asserting that, due to the less-than-mainstream nature of the conversation on chronic pain, literature which takes chronic pain as its main topic seems relatively thin on the ground – unless meagre medical textbooks or self-published Kindle works are your thing. I have come across a couple of good memoirs on the subject – The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong is one I read this year; the whole thing is wise and clever and worth reading for that, but really, she had me at ex-nun. However, rare is the work which can marry memoir and excellent journalism, romping all the way across history to speak not only of pain, but of what it is to be human. Enter Melanie Thernstrom. The Pain Chronicles is a fantastically ambitious piece that straddles many different genres whilst all the while being firmly non-fiction. And to say I’m not a huge non-fiction fan (or rather, I like learning, but I often find non-fiction books dry, especially scientific ones), I really enjoyed this book and would warmly recommend it.
A word to the wise: if you go in expecting positive psychology, self-help, poetry, or indeed answers to what ails you, you will likely be disappointed. If, however, you fancy learning about the science of pain, along with some history of religion and a few anecdotal interludes, then you and this book will get on well.
4. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Whatever you may think about Gilbert’s chakras-and-gelato memoir Eat, Pray, Love, if you create anything of any sort – I don’t just mean artsy! – you should give this a look/listen. Structured more as a series of reflections than a straightforward narrative, this book is the literary equivalent of Inspiration Fuel for the empty creative tank. Lacking confidence? Feeling worthless? Struggling with motivation? This book will help you get the Magic back. Popping this on the Re-read list, otherwise it’s tantamount to neglecting a spellbook.
5. Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey
Finally, my favourite of the favourites; or should I say, the book that for me sums up my 2018. The writing of Sarah Bessey was recommended to me by one of my closest friends, who just so happens to be a vicar. I had been engaged in a big heart-to-heart with her, as is my wont, about how much my relationship with my faith had developed, and how I was finding the resultant freedom bittersweet and not without guilt. In much the same way that I am having to reconcile my bodypositivity with my desire to return to a healthy weight, I am concerned of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to my relationship with the Almighty (or my perception of it at least). Rachel smiled, nodded, her head tilted to one side as it is when she listens with her whole heart and mind, which seems to be always. She disappeared for a moment and returned with Out of Sorts.
One of my top 5 reads in 2016 was Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Cranky Beautiful Faith. A conflicted-but-earnest 23-year-old Rosalind wrote: ‘I suspect I will need to revisit her work often in the coming years, as I pursue my own journey of faith through grace.’ That has certainly been the case over the last two years. In emancipating myself from the restrictions of a background that was making it peculiarly painful to change or mature, I have felt displaced in the space I’ve carved out for myself. The result is prickly and uncomfortable on a primal emotional level. I needed to be reassured.
This book – as it says on the tin – brought me profound moments of peace and self-compassion. It has renewed my understanding of faith and self, by allowing me to forgive myself for growing and changing; anyone raised with even a whiff of fundamentalism will know why. Bessey’s writing in general is somehow exceedingly wise, poetic, and playful all at once, and her monthly reflection/theology newsletter contains many gifs, which makes me like her even more.
2019 in books: goals
I’ve absolutely loved making more time for books this year, and intend to keep it rolling. I am setting myself the goal of 45 books, even if some are shorter than others..! I’m also going to count, but more importantly just include, re-reads. Aside from those I’ve needed for exams, I never tend to revisit books. I make notes and have a book of quotes I like which I read every once in a while, but it’s not the same. Some books need time to infuse. Big Magic, Out of Sorts and Go Set a Watchman are heading up the list.
I’m challenging myself to read at least 10 books set in cultures different to my own, slipping into different coloured skins and embracing the different issues that I may not myself have experienced. I’d also like to read more about the non-binary experience this year, and potentially dabble in some political thought..?! Maybe these are grand plans. Fortunately, these goals are set to motivate and enrich my literary diet, but they do not form a stick with which to beat myself if I don’t meet them. That mentality can f*** all the way off.
Here’s hoping for another thoroughly bookish year (including more writing of my own!). Excited for the next chapter.