I read a lot of good books in 2019. I am never sure about the idea of Best Books, or giving them scores out of 5. I mean, who are we to judge, and sometimes good books are simply no fun. So I like to think in terms of the books I enjoyed most, and for whatever reason: the ones that got under my skin or touched my heart or tickled my fancy or lifted my spirits in some special way. In 2019, these were:
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Edward Carey, Little
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, translated by Charlotte Mandel
Tatyana Tolstaya, Aetherial Worlds, translated by Anya Migdal
Sigrid Nunez, The Friend
Andrea Lawlor, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
Larry Mitchell, The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions
Nora Ephron, Heartburn
Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, audio narration by Patrick Lawlor
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, audio narration by Richard Armitage
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, audio narration by Michael Page
Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, audio narration by George Guidall
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Anthony Briggs
The stand-out has to be Ocean Vuong. Consider the sheer scale of the stories in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: stories of migration, stories of families, stories of trauma. A love story. A working-class story. The great Vietnam War novel we hadn’t read yet. And then there is his gorgeous and often mysterious prose! And he only learned how to read at age eleven! And he’s only thirty-one now! It was also a real treat to see him talk about his book at the Southbank in July too; he sang a hymn to us as well.
Olga Tokarczuk was another notable discovery, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of her work. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is quite something, gnarly and magical and surprising, if you’ve yet to have the pleasure.
I was reading Edward Carey’s Little this time last year, and I finished it early in 2019, and I knew I’d be writing about it today as one of my faves. This fictional life of Madame Tussaud is rich and immersive storytelling at its best.
Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a gem of historical fiction that transported me to Constantinople in the sixteenth century. And it nearly beat Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead to best title of the year.
The Friend moved me immensely, and not just because of the dog; it just gets the tone right, and goes to show that obvious plotting isn’t everything (even for a reader who loves a juicy plot).
I vowed to read more sf and fantasy in 2019, but I didn’t. However, in a smug and thoroughly unexpected breakthrough I did read three and a half (and counting) monster works by dead white males that have been taunting me from my bookshelves for decades. For various reasons – mostly: too many books, and not doing English A level – I’ve been a latecomer to various classic authors. And I’m enjoying catching up. (Just remembered: I used the hashtag #deadwhitemales on Instagram, and it seemed to lead to me being unfollowed! Be gone, unimaginative followers, and while you’re there get some schooling in irony.)
Reading Tatyana Tolstaya’s salty stories set me towards finally embarking on War and Peace. Philip Hensher is right: it can be read in ten days! If you are on holiday, and not doing much else. And it really is a great novel, the great novel. Other than the epilogues (one dull, one disappointingly reactionary), I loved it. The Briggs translation was the one I read, but I did also dip into three others, as I love comparing different renditions into English. I guess I could learn Russian, but.
This was, in addition to the year of Ocean, the year of the audiobook. Not least, this was the way I finally cracked some of those omissions on my TBR shelves. I finally read (and loved) Portrait of a Lady (on the fifth or sixth try), and I finally understood the big-hearted and nutty brilliance of Charlies Dickens, in no small part because of the fantastic narration by Richard Armitage of David Copperfield, which bowled me over. Armitage gives the characters regional accents – the Micawbers are Brummies! And of course Dickens works so well when you’re listening to a talented performer. I feel set up for watching the forthcoming movie – and also excited for the colourblind casting that will for sure confound the unimaginative. (‘Racism is fundamentally a failure of the imagination’ – discuss. I hate binaries.)
The Left Hand of Darkness was a reread. I love rereading via a good audio narration. That trek across the snow! And just everything about this book, everything. Now I know again why I call it one of my favourites. And a terrible and crushing admission: this year I reread Wizard of Earthsea too, book form, and though there is much to love in the world-building I found the pacing a bit stodgy and the characterisation a bit dry. Maybe I should have tried the audio.
So: audiobooks are just wonderful. One has currently guided me 59 per cent of the way through Moby-Dick, which is about twice as much ground as I ever made on numerous attempts before. The narration, by William Hootkins, is very Ah-ha, me maties, and I feel confident I’ll finish it early next month. Shan’t I feel smug?! (Jury is still out on Melville’s masterpiece, though. I mean, on the one hand. But on the other. Check this space this time next year.)
Some lessons and virtue signalling: a good balance of men/women. A goodly number of works in translation. A number of indie presses. Could probably make a bit more effort with live hetero males as well as the dead white ones? Virago publishes good books. I like being taken elsewhere – other times, new places, fresh angles.
There are plenty of books I didn’t like or didn’t finish. Nowadays I tend to give up on books I’m not enjoying; life’s too short, etc. Others I might finish one day, if: time, mood. Hype certainly got in the way of others. A couple of sequels were disappointments. Perhaps this says something about me and sequels, or maybe it’s about publishers being publishers (that thing they have with more of the same).
Olive, Again was fine in the actual reading, but with hindsight it was pretty forgettable; I only read it last month, but I remember little other than the fact it depressed the fuck out of me. Which was also, I realised, how I had felt about Lucy Barton and its sequel (whose title I forget), which I read a couple of years ago. But how I had adored Olive Kitteridge! That book surprised me when I read it a few years ago, and it’s a book that withstands rereading. Yet despite this author’s command of craft and tone, somehow these others of her books lacked the wit of OK. They had, for me, an overriding grimness, and though I’m no pollyanna I’m getting too much of that in the news and on Twitter.
Find Me read like fan fiction written by the author. Which is fine, as why shouldn’t an author love their own work. But all those bisexual intergenerational relationships among the multilingual metropolitan culturati felt interchangeable and unbelievable and self-indulgent, and I ended up wishing I’d never read it. Find Me succeeded in the impossible by undermining the charm of Call Me By Your Name and my love for Out of Egypt. You can have too much of a good thing – I should have read another Henry James, shouldn’t I?
I decided to read The Testaments next year, after the hype has gone down and when I’m not so irked about the copout of the ‘unanimous’ (don’t believe it!) sharing out of the Booker Prize (ffs!). I’m very keen to read Bernardine Everisto’s Girl, Woman, Other and Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance, and I’m saving a few other books I had my eye on (ear out for?) in 2019 for audio reads. (Which take time! And dog walks.)
I am sure I have forgotten some other reads, including books on the craft of writing. I did find myself reading/rereading Natalie Goldberg and LOVING her more than ever. Oh, and Lynda Barry’s Making Comics! It’s missing from my photo above – but then again I have about ten pages left so perhaps I shall add to next year’s list. Everyone should read Lynda Barry, or just watch this. I also found Charlotte Wood’s Mind of One’s Own series of podcasts on writing really engaging.
On telly, I loved the second series of the adaptation of Big Little Lies until the last episode, which I really didn’t like, and then I read about the production and began to hater on it. Game of Thrones: the ending was just great by me, loved it, but I wish it had had a much better build-up, and I wish one actor had been treated like a grown-up and at least been given a glimmer of their character arc some seasons ago. And after giving up after watching the first three Witchers slack-jawed at clunky writing weighed down with info dumps, we’re now LOVING the new adaptation of Watchmen. My fave tv of the year though has to be the five series of Peaky Blinders. Dodgy Midlands accents aside (big caveat), it’s a cracking piece of drama, and it made me wonder if/who is writing big ballsy blockbuster novels in that mode nowadays.
I attended some good events (some certainly better than books they were promoting). I was very happy to attend Eleanor Anstruther’s launch for A Perfect Explanation. I also attended some super salons from Words Away. Another event that stood out was the series of panels organised one summer evening by Hachette Pride at a crowded Waterstones Piccadilly. Not least, they fit seventeen speakers into a couple of hours! It made me proud I used to work there in another century’s incarnation, and also pleased to see how far the world has come with LGBTQ+ rights and reading. I was particularly engaged by the panel with trans writing and writers; so much to take in. Let’s also pay heed to Patrick Gale’s warning about rights that were earned and rights can be taken away.
‘The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.’ That line, from ‘La Vie Bohème’ in the musical Rent, reminds me that in tough times we have to forge our own alternatives. One book whose playful and utopian impulse inspired me is Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, whose author, Andrea Lawlor, teaches a class in utopian literature, which led me to the peculiar book The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, which is whimsical and hard to classify, but then the best things often are.
And I mustn’t forget Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, which was salve during tough moments when our dog was ill. Laughter is the best medicine (except for steroids, which saved his life).
So: this was Ocean’s year. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one book I shall certainly be rereading on audio. And some more Dickens. And I can’t wait for the new novel by Garth Greenwell, or the memoir by Carmen Maria Machado, or Chuck Palahniuk’s book on writing.
Happy New Year! Off to watch more Watchmen.