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.