Books I Enjoyed Most In 2019

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.

Books of 2018

In approximate order of reading, and including books published in other years, the books that I most enjoyed reading this year were:

Zoe Gilbert, Folk
Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body And Other Parties
Xiaolu Guo, Once Upon A Time In The East 
Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers
Tommy Orange, There There
Alexander Chee, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel 
David Sedaris, Calypso
Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna
Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan Song
Lucia Berlin, Welcome Home
Anna Burns, Milkman
Sally Rooney, Normal People

Other mentions go to: Denis Johnson, Train Dreams; Kit De Waal, A Trick To Time; Carys Davies, The Redemption of Galen Pike; Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad; Bartholomew Bennett, The Pale Ones; Armistead Maupin, Logical Family.

I’m still reading other contenders: Richard Powers, The Overstory; André Aciman, Enigma Variations; the most recent Lucia Berlin collection, Evening In Paradise. Sometimes I just have to take my time with a book – why rush something that’s good and meant to be savoured? And I only just started Edward Carey’s Little. It is witty and well paced, and I am already halfway through this captivating story about Madame Tussaud, but I doubt it’ll be finished before 2019 comes in. I’m also currently listening to Claire Danes’s fleet rendition of Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey: another one for 2019?

Other books shall remain permanently unfinished, I suspect, and I still won’t get back the time or remove the bad taste in my mouth, despair in my soul, or bewilderment in my brain that came from lasting to the bitter end with a few unmentionable duds. I have said it before, and I am sure I shall say it again: are there any limits to publisher hype and social media twysteria, is there any accounting for taste?!

No matter. I like books with a dark tinge, clearly. Other common threads in what I did enjoy: voice (especially Toews, Sedaris, Burns, and Rooney); the intensity of personal stories (Guo, Chee, Sedaris, Berlin, plus various fictionalised accounts); creating community from art and politics against the epic backdrop of historical events (Great Believers, Lacuna); unworldy world-building (Zoe Gilbert’s Neverness, the stories of Carmen Maria Machado). My read of The Lacuna was certainly expanded by the marvellous Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A, and I particularly enjoyed Alexander Chee’s interest in gardening and tarot, and his experiences as both student and teacher of creative writing.

A special mention for well-received Xmas pressies: Anissa Helou’s Feast: Food of the Islamic World, and the celebration of Palestinian food in Joudie Kalla’s Baladi, and The Writer’s Map by Huw Lewis-Jones (which I must work into the setting session of the masterclass I’m teaching next month). And the Blue Peter craft book Here’s One I Made Earlier was a real blast to the past, especially the wizard puppet made from a Jif lemon and a dishmop.

I attended many engaging literary events in 2018. I loved seeing André Aciman, Sharlene Teo and Madeline Miller at the London Literature Festival, and look forward to reading Sharlene and Madeline’s books as soon as I can. An event at Foyle’s for the fortieth anniversary of the Virago Modern Classics was a real celebration where I was lucky also to meet Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott for the first time. And I gained much from Zoe Gilbert’s insights into writing at both workshops as well as a Words Away salon. I’m sure I’d have loved their books without meeting them anyway, but knowing someone can really deepen a connection to a book. (Sometimes! It’s not always the case.)

But an advance notice for Eleanor Anstruther’s A Perfect Explanation, which is coming in the spring, and is based on the most extraordinary true story. In 2019, I’m also excited to read Julie Cohen’s Louis & Louise, Fiona Erskine’s The Chemical Detective, and Trevor Mark Thomas’s The Bothy. I know or have had professional connections to all of these writers, so I add not only that disclaimer but also an observation that it’s good to see talent, application, and good storytelling rewarded with success in publishing.

This was also for me the year of the audiobook. The two most profound reading experiences of 2018 for me were in fact listening experiences. One was Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song. I loved the narration of its collective third-person We: gossipy, intimate, confessional. Voice is probably the aspect of craft that draws me most of all into a story, and the voice in this novel about Truman Capote and his high-society muses especially worked its magic as narrated in audio form by Deborah Weston. This book took me somewhere else, and there’s little more I want from a story.

A very good year for very good books, but if I had to pick one that stood out for me it’s probably Milkman by Anna Burns. First, it has the most remarkable voice, in the audiobook brought to life by narrator Bríd Brennan with great force: sarcastic, funny, relentless. Maybe my experience of the audiobook gave me a seamless experience, as I was bemused by commentary on the book’s apparent difficulty. I easily find that works described as challenging can be opaque, pretentious, or dull. But I loved loved LOVED Milkman for its great looping paragraphs, and its rootless refusal of placenames, and the no-names of its characters: the wee sisters, maybe-boyfriend, longest friend, the real milkman, the unreal milkman. Again: that sarcasm, the tone, the gossipy style of storytelling. This is how people talk, right? Nothing difficult about that. (If you have any doubts: do the audiobook.)

Second, I loved Milkman‘s crafty politics: its critique of patriarchy and matriarchy and class, its depiction of the violence of borders and the madness of authoritarianism, its cry for freedom – especially (and indignantly) the freedom to read while walking. I realised that something I particularly liked about this book is that it’s basically a dystopian novel – one of my favourite genres, and right now, as we prepare to face the consequences of Brexit, most cleverly and claustrophobically rendered. (I return to a line from the musical Rent: the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.)

Milkman is one of my favourite novels of the last ten years, and it’s one I shall return to, and examine more closely – it will be interesting to see how my feelings about it evolve. Above I loved its beauty: the beauty of sunsets and French lessons, the beauty of reading while walking and camaraderie in running, the beauty of lists, the beauty of its sentences, the beauty of its fury, the surprise of its acts of compassion and creation, and, despite all the darkness, the sense of love and hope and healing it left me with. 

On that note: a Happy New Year! May 2019 again see good books and literary friendships bringing light into the world.

Books of 2017

I read some good books this year. I also thought I had read a lot of books this year until I got a holiday round-robin from my auntie Ruth, who mentioned in passing the 188 books she’d read in 2017 (this was early December), including ones in the original Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French (she read some from German and Russian in translation, she said – though she speaks those languages, and another seven too). Not so pleased with myself now, am I?!

Some of the books I mention below as read in 2017 were published during this year, some were older ones that I finally got round to, some were rereads. Some books were overrated, overhyped, execrable. But my new year resolution is to try to be positive in the world (wishy-washy if well-meaning), so (for now at least) let’s leave it at that. There were plenty of books that lie unfinished, too – some not worth finishing, or perhaps I’m simply not ready for them yet. So many books!

Off the top of my head, two novels gave me most pleasure this year. One was The Green Road by Anne Enright. Among its many strengths, The Green Road has a structure I love – slabs of narrative that the reader is left to stitch together, and that cohere with force at the end. The characterisation is also disarming – these feel like real people, with all the points of affection or irritation you’d find in family members. You feel you are getting full lives, full stories here. I also loved the saltiness of the politics in this Anne Enright essay in the London Review of Books – potent, but not at all preachy.

The other novel I really loved was Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I knew it was set during the American Civil War, but I didn’t know other things about it, and it surprised me to the end. Barry wears his research lightly, and his narrator’s voice is winning.

Increasingly I find the short story most consistently pleasurable as a literary form, and among many stories I read in 2017 two collections stick in my mind. Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars gave me elephants and emperors and explorers and spaceships – stories with real dash and imagination, unbounded by genre or categorisation. And Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees gives us sharply drawn tales of migrants and families.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was a big, baggy novel full of heart, and it was a pleasure to lose myself in it. And after that I read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time – another big novel with big themes that’s become my favourite among her books. A further summer read was one of Kent Haruf’s earlier novels The Ties That Bind – his stories of extraordinary ordinary lives in Colorado make him, for me, one of the great prose stylists. The North Water by Iain McGuire was a bloody tale of the whaling industry in the nineteenth century, and also an example of a novel that uses present tense most effectively (I have to collect examples of such things, given how often I tell people that using the past tense is probably easiest and most sensible in writing a novel).

A couple of books I loved for their strangeness. Set in the aftermath of the First World War, Xan Brooks’s The Clocks In The House All Tell Different Times takes something disturbing and makes something surprising out of it – an unflinching book. And Conor O’Callaghan’s Nothing On Earth has great mood and mystery.

Two works of nonfiction told powerful stories of gay history and current affairs: Cleve Jones’s When We Rise and Paul Flynn’s Good As You. I also gained much from Why Buddhism Is True by Ronald Wright and The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning by Iain McGilchrist. The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats is a collection of Allen Ginsberg’s lectures edited by Bill Morgan that took me back to Naropa, and it also made me think how much I enjoy the syllabus as a literary form (see also: Lynda Barry).

One of my most memorable book experiences of the year came from listening to the audiobook of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I first read it over thirty years ago, and it was a real treat to have it read to me this time round, even if the playing fields of Twickenham, where I was often walking my dog at the time, lack the romance of the wide open spaces of Nebraska. What I particularly noticed is that it doesn’t really have a plot. It’s just very well observed. People are observed with heart, landscapes are observed with lyricism; everything changes, and everything stays the same – and there’s a point to that. I often recommend that writers listen to the audiobooks of favourites of their youth or childhood – I think we absorb a great deal when we soak up in this way a story that means so much to us. In the case of My Antonia, in fact, it had been so long that I had forgotten much of the story, though certain vivid images (a dead man in a freezing barn; a silhouette on the prairie) remained etched on my mind – or is it my heart? But I have always remembered the tone of the writing: warm, generous, wistful – a memorable experience of feeling in writing after most of the details were gone. The tone is perhaps even more alive in this audio version. (Much depends, of course, on the narrator chosen to read.)

Another great listening experience was the Mindful U podcast from my alma mater Naropa.

Coming in 2018 is Home by Amanda Berriman. What impresses me most of all: it uses not only the point of view but the voice of a four-year-old girl to tell the whole story. I know, I know – we don’t work with children or animals, but it’s wonderful when something so daring is so accomplished (plus: Watership Down – okay, books are not films in other ways too). What’s more, given its gritty subject matter, is that it has flashes of irony, even humour, dare I say. I know Mandy from various writing events, and know something of her application to learning the craft, so this makes this debut even more exciting – she deserves every success.

Another debut novelist I know professionally is Terri Fleming, whose Perception was published this year. It’s a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that focuses on the stories of Mary and Kitty, and it possesses real wit and economy, and some rich characterisation. I gave this as a gift to several Janeite friends during 2017, and everyone loved it. Some real raves.

I ended the year reading the diary bits of Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On and then Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days. Both have distinct voices, and both are uncompromising in their politics – sometimes directly, sometimes more subtly. Jeanette’s Christmas book was recommended to me after last Christmas, and I’m glad I saved it until this one. It’s charming.

I also reread Moominland Midwinter, and was very excited to see the Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Beyond books, the revival of Angels in America in June was magical! We saw it first time round, and we loved every bit of it this year: funny, fantastic, gutsy, fierce. The Angel in this version was not what I expected, but I very much liked.

I very much enjoyed seeing George Saunders talk about writing and read from his work (along with a troupe of performers at Goldsmith’s) this year; he is a funny and generous man. Words Away salons with Monica Ali and Tessa Hadley were other highlights among events, as was the Polari tenth-anniversary reading at the Southbank Centre.

On TV I loved Big Little Lies. Christmas was a bit thin on TV offerings, though I did love the hammy Crooked House on Channel 5, which I thought was more fun (less pretentious) than the recent BBC adaptations of Agatha Christie. No one chews scenery better than Glenn Close. And we did catch up on a lot of Larry David in December too.

So: put on the spot, I guess my books of 2017 were The Green Road, Days Without End, and My Antonia.

Happy New Year!

Syllabus, By Lynda Barry


Lynda Barry sounds like one of those Americans I love to be around: a progressive hippie (I assume …) with a big heart and a boisterous laugh and depths of feeling in her work. She is well known in North America for her cartoons, which have appeared in indie newspapers since the 1970s. I first encountered her name when I was UK editor for the fantastic Life In Hell books of Simpsons creator Matt Groening – they became friends when he ran the student paper at Evergreen State College, where her first work appeared. Her name appears in his books’ increasingly teasing dedications, e.g., ‘Lynda Barry is still funk queen of the galaxy’.

More recently Lynda Barry has also created empowering workshops on creativity. Subtitled Notes From An Accidental Professor, her book Syllabus presents course materials she uses in an innovative class called The Unthinkable Mind that she teaches at the Image Lab of the Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Open to both graduate and undergraduate students from all academic disciplines, this writing and picture-making class is focused on learning about the basic physical structure of the brain and the particular kind of creative concentration that comes about when we are writing, drawing, or constructing something by hand.

A Lynda Barry syllabus differs from the usual document rattling over class aims and objectives in dreary Academicese in 12pt Times New Roman. They are full of questions and prompts and cheeky asides, and what’s more they are handwritten and illuminated in colour with her own sketches and doodles, which are works of art in themselves. As a Guardian profile says, her ‘collages are densely visionary compositions, as if William Blake had clipped out his cosmology from old magazines’. This graphic quality creates an enlivening and liberating experience from the moment you look at the cover then open the book. There’s a strong a sense of play, which is something Lynda Barry is all about.


‘What is an image?’ asks a scary stick figure from the back cover. ‘How far can a pen, a composition notebook, and a burning question take you?’ The image, for Barry, refers to any thing, experience, or idea that is given form in the arts: ‘the formless thing which gives things form’, she says in one of her other books, What It Is. For any artist, the challenge lies in finding the form that expresses that thing, experience, or idea authentically. Drawing on research in cognitive science, Lynda Barry explains:

I was trying to understand how images travel between people, how they move through time, and if there is a way to use writing and picture making to figure out more how images work.

The creative tasks pursuing that aim in Syllabus feel commonsensical, rather than complex, tasking members of the class on ways to explore, free of inhibition, the sources of our images – our childhoods, our pasts, our everyday lives – and then to make the creation of art and writing ‘unthinkable’: instinctive, spontaneous, and true. The priority here is not about produced finished pieces of art, but about stimulating creativity – though I’d venture to say (if we are allowed to think that way) that such liberating approaches usually arrive at the most successful works of art anyway, however we define success.

The class includes tons of activities and assignments to foster ease and spontaneity in our artistic process. Keeping a Daily Diary with lists of things done, seen, and heard every day as well as a quick sketch of something you’ve seen. Timed drawing exercises based on the deceptively simple cartooning style of Ivan Brunetti. Memorising Emily Dickinson poems. Listening to Grimms fairytales while you draw. Spontaneous writing exercises using in-class prompts. Writing exercises based on memories. Collaborative drawing jams where your peers pass around a 4 x 4 grid and fill it with the names of occupations or types of people, and then you have a minute to draw each character.


All writing for this class is handwritten: students are tasked on filling lined composition notebooks (Syllabus amounts to a facsimile of one). Students also trace and copy pictures. And there is colouring, lots of colouring, especially while you are, e.g., listening to music or socialising. Barry was well ahead of the current fashion on colouring, and she expects students’ Crayolas to get worn down to the stub.

Another important lesson comes in doodling spirals, as students do not give feedback round the table in the style of a conventional writing workshop, but simply draw spirals while their peers read out their writing. It’s a good contemplative practice, with the focus shifting from judgement to expression, listening, and understanding. (I think there is a time for judgement and engaging the critical faculties, but that comes later.)


All the students in her classes are assigned nicknames, e.g., parts of the brain such as Cerebral Cortex or Amygdala. I also like this classroom guideline: ‘Friendly Reminder: No electronic devices are allowed in our classroom between 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Please do not check your devices during our break.’ (I was only saying to someone the other day that it would be great if, maybe, we only used Twitter and Facebook between, say, the hours of 4 and 6 p.m. every day, and then for the rest of the time we could get on with our lives, rather than have it mediated.)

And how about these for Classroom Rules?


Barry offers many sassy insights and savvy aphorisms. E.g., on the ways that taste and judgement get in the way of creative production: ‘Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there.’ Much of what she proposes is about restoring the unself-conscious approaches to art and play that we enjoyed in childhood, and about establishing an easy and regular practice:

The only way to understand this is by making things. Thinking about it, theorizing about it, chatting about it will not get you there.

She passionately believes the arts are a matter of life and death, as she describes in a talk for (around 9:45) where she discusses the books or songs that change your world; the arts are ‘the corollary to our immune system’, or ‘our external organs’. One of my favourite Lynda quips comes later in that talk:

I hate art. I hate art galleries. They remind me of intensive care units. Doesn’t it seem like you don’t know what’s going on? Everything’s really expensive and clean.

That sums up her approach for me. Art is a living thing, and, at its best, like life art is messy.

And, importantly: art should be should be accessible to all.

One of my main aims in teaching and editorial coaching is helping writers to find ways to make good writing come instinctively. Syllabus is a real inspiration, and a book every writer and artist should read. Its lessons are deep, its method is fun, it is ground-breaking, mind-expanding, barrier-breaking. I could rave on and on, but it’s a book that is best experienced rather than described.

Lynda Barry is FOREVER the funk queen of the galaxy.


And don’t forget to read her other books too – I can HIGHLY recommend her graphic memoir One! Hundred! Demons! as well as What It Is (extract here) and Picture This. All are gorgeously produced by Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

More on Lynda Barry in these clips:

Lynda Barry’s Tumblr

Creativity and Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry – video from (ESSENTIAL VIEWING!)

Lynda Barry Will Make You Believe In Yourself – New York Times Magazine profile

Lynda Barry: What Is An Image? – Guardian profile

Join Lynda Barry For A University-Level Course On Doodling And Neuroscience – review of Syllabus from OpenCulture, with lots of sample pages

Lynda Barry’s Wonderfully Illustrated Syllabus and Homework Assignments From Her UW-Madison Course ‘The Unthinkable Mind’ – another OpenCulture review, with plenty more sample pages

The Rumpus Interview With Lynda Barry



Books Of 2015


I tend to shy away from judgements on published works on this blog (though not elsewhere!), but I thought I’d do my own year-end list of books: books I’ve enjoyed, books that left an impression, books I gained something from. Not all were published this year, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten other books I read in 2015, and this could be a slightly different list were I to write it yesterday or tomorrow.

Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl is perhaps my favourite book of the year. 2015 could go down in literary history as the year I discovered Edna O’Brien. Yay! Love her.  A couple of months after reading, what I remember most: the lyrical prose, the stories of her family and her marriage, the celebs she describes (could be namedroppy in lesser hands, but here they just come naturally and deservedly). I was taken into another world with this book, which is one of my measurements of what a great book should do for me. What a star.

If that book has a contender for my fave, it’s probably Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, which I finally read back in February. A powerful family story, with a strong setting in time and place (Rhodesia in the 70s and 80s) and great political purpose. Searingly good, and so rich and so intense I eked it out a couple of chapters at a time.

Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family is perhaps the novel that consumed me most this year. I can’t quite put my finger on why, as at times I found its central character and a couple of other players a little grating. But then there were other characters who really got under my skin, which makes me think that sometimes we have to set up certain things (grating characters) for other things to work better (characters who get under the skin). They certainly felt real as a result, and worked their magic – the voice and the tone really took hold of me at certain points.

I also enjoyed a reading where Bill Clegg described his process in writing this book: on returning to his hometown after a long time away, he started writing about it. He had a line – She will go – that would end up as the opening sentence of Chapter Two, in fact, but it took four years of accruing many pages in the voices and points of view of an extended community before he landed on the narrative device that would be placed at the start of his book and drive his plot. It took another three years to refine what went in the book (much went out). I think this shows in the deeply felt portraiture of people and place: this was instinctively assembled, bottom upwards, and we really experience a slice of these characters’ lives.

I’d been gripped by Bill Clegg’s first memoir Portrait Of The Addict As A Young Man when it first came out, and, having been impressed by his novel, this year I caught up on his second memoir, Ninety Days, which is about his recovery: whoa! Economical writing, and very powerful in its frankness. A very New York book, too, I thought.

Another economical read was Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night. It has a pretty simple setup (oldsters seeking company), and unfolds with a beguiling humour and depth of characterisation, and also a certain darkness. It took me back to the small towns on the plains of Colorado. This is the author’s last novel (he died a year ago), but I still have a few other books of his to catch up on. A lovely feature by him here: ‘The Making Of A Writer’.

Nina Stibbe’s Man At The Helm was probably the novel that charmed me most this year: her characters, her setting (a gossipy Midlands village), and especially her voice. We are there with her and her family in what turns out to be a funny and clever and bittersweet book. Funny is hard to pull off: funny is the mark of a clever writer, and when it’s combined with feeling it’s a powerful thing. And I love that she uses all the words (the effs and the cees), like a good writer should.

Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room is a strange and unsettling book that held my attention with pretty ordinary events that delivered unexpected turns of suspense. Again, it is the style that wins my praise. He is unafraid to experiment or be something other than obvious, and he does so unpretentiously in a way that seems effortless.

I read a few dreadful (published) books too. I’m usually hesitant about parading harsh judgements on this blog, or even entertaining the idea of dreadful, because my job is about encouraging writers to find their way in the world of writing, and taste is so subjective, anyway – many books I enjoy might in fact be subject to others’ snootiness.

But: I hated A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It started off so well, and I did admire the book’s management of time – compressing, looping back, opening out as it went along – but I knew things had really gone irretrievably badly when [spoiler!] a character in a wheelchair got pushed down a stairwell by his violent boyfriend, and my visceral reaction was to laugh out loud. I found this book manipulative without being moving, and could not help but compare the misfortunes it melodramatises with any number of real-life stories (e.g., see Alexandra Fuller, above). The book is said to aim for a heightened reality, which sounds like the bold sort of deviation from representative realism that I usually love, but I’m afraid I was not persuaded, perhaps as its fans seem to have identified in very literal and mawkish ways with its cast of cartoonish characters.

It was its reception that probably confounded me most, especially on Twitter, where it sometimes felt as if emotional cripples – stunted by the limits of 140 characters, and craving reaction – were live-tweeting their readings. (Later, I imagined some of these readers were the same people tweeting that London Spy was the best and most heartbreaking thing on telly, even after that last – that word again – dreadful episode; it too had started so well …) So many publishing successes nowadays seem to be twysterically generated.

Maybe I’d not have felt so strongly about A Little Life had I not read the quote from the Atlantic saying this might be the ‘great gay novel’. Ultimately it felt to me like misery-porn for self-hating homos, a ghoulish fantasy for faghags who prefer their gay men as victims, abusers, consumers, or pastry chefs. Eventually I saw sense prevailing among some readers, such as discussion with Scott Pack on his blog. Daniel Mendelsohn’s exacting review in the New York Review of Books (as well as his even more exacting response to a letter from the book’s editor) must rank as one of the most thoughtful pieces of criticism I read in 2015 (and not just because I heartily agree with it). In a year in which personal attacks and trolling have continued to pollute social media, I resisted sharing my own negative responses so publicly. But eventually I thought that it felt pollyanna-ish not to speak about something I felt strongly about, and I note I’ve written more about it here than any of the books that I enjoyed; perhaps this is in fact my book of the year?! Much can be formed in provocation and opposition. And I did at least end up loving-to-hate this book, I guess!

I increasingly think that volumes of short stories should not be read all at once, and I’ve continued to read the short stories in Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, which I started in 2014. I’m bowled over by her voice and style and sense of place. And in a year where so much discourse in identity politics has been marked by righteousness, I particularly liked how Watkins’s essay ‘On Pandering’ raised questions rather than sought offence.

I’m still working through the most excellent catalogue for the most excellent Celts exhibition at the British Museum, and I’m also a few chapters into Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes (I often read nonfiction in fits and starts). I also enjoyed many pieces I read on or via Literary Hub.

Another great discovery was Lynda Barry. I’d read about her before, but not read any of her books. Syllabus, which gathers together her classroom notes for a course she teaches on creativity at the University of Wisconsin, is called life-changing by its publisher, and I think the hyperbole is warranted. It was also refreshing for me to read something where so much of its energy came through illustration rather than words, and it prompted me to read others of her books: What It Is, Picture This, and One! Hundred! Demons! I should write a review for Syllabus on this blog sometime. Yay! All hail Queen Lynda! I also want to read more widely in graphic novels and memoirs.

While discussing books on writing and creativity, I should mention The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, which I’m still working through (on pause till I finish my close reading of Silence of the Lambs, which it will discuss in detail as a case study). And I am also pleased that Ursula Le Guin’s Steering The Craft is now more widely available in a new edition.

Further special mentions go to two debut novels coming in 2016 that I was lucky to read as advance proofs: Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep and Kit De Waal’s My Name Is Leon. Both have children as protagonists, and each delivers a certain unexpected bite, but they work their wonders in different ways. Both, I now realise, also have period settings in the Midlands (70s and 80s), which I think is very good indeed: we need more strong Midlands voices in contemporary fiction (okay, Nina Stibbe is another one too – yes, maybe I’m biased). I’d not be surprised to see either of these engrossing novels as prizewinners or book club selections, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from their authors.

There were a number of books I did not get to. I hope in the near future to read Sanjeev Sahota’s Year Of The Runaways and Marlon James’s Brief History Of Seven Killings and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen; this was a good year for the Booker, it seems. Also Oliver Sacks’s memoir On The Move; his column in the New York Times was another moving read. And maybe sometime soon I’ll get to Elena Ferrante – I confess to starting the first volume several times now, and finding the translation a bit stiff.

I’d also hoped to finish Moby-Dick this year, nay this summer, but other things came along (not least, its mid-Victorian style of rambling and musing, which has its moments, but I’m wanting me some STORY). I’m 40 per cent of the way in, and finally (FINALLY) we’ve met Ahab and had a mention of the whale. More anon (I hope), though for now I think I’m going to take a breather with Anne Tyler’s newest book A Spool Of Blue Thread.

And I realise I still (after three serious goes) have not finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro; I was really looking forward to this, and thought it sounded like the sort of literary fantasy I should have enjoyed, but what I did read just didn’t grab me (and I only have sixty pages left to go – which says a lot): sometimes a bit heavy-handed, often a bit lacking (in spark? in magic?). Plus I am tired of the patronising conversations about genre fiction by literary authors and their readers.

The novels I’ve listed as enjoying here have been on the whole pretty straightforward works of realism. People and places and voices were what seemed to count in my reading. No plot-rich pageturners this year, or historical blockbusters, or escapes into fantasy: no Goldfinch, no Burial Rites, no new George R.R. Martin.

Despite my love of novels and short stories, I think the works of fiction I enjoyed the most in 2015 all appeared on television. Game of Thrones continued to entertain and surprise, and I’m looking forward to see how it departs further from the books in 2016. I’m currently watching the second season of Transparent, whose characters at first irritated the hell out of me, until I really fell for them. So Jewish and so Californian, and so many of the joys and misunderstandings of relationships and family life are drawn with truth. And The Bridge also gave surprises, especially beyond the usual resolutions of a police procedural drama – the last hour of the third series was the best hour of telly (and fiction) this year.

Happy New Year!