Goodbye, 2018 – A Year in Reading

Yesterday, as has become tradition, I did Susannah Conway’s Unravel the Year workbook. The workbook always starts with a recap before it comes to the goal-setting, which is something I’ve never quite enjoyed. I’m not someone who likes to look back, because in the past that has always felt like a disappointment. I prefer looking into the future – making plans, starting again, believing that things can get better.

That was a little different this year. 2018 has been an amazing year in terms of my health and wellbeing, and I’ve felt his at every corner. It occurred to me recently that people who seem to have their shit together and are on top of things don’t necessarily have a secret – maybe they’re just not depressed. The difference between functioning while depressed and functioning while well is like the difference between crawling and dancing. And the insidious thing is: unless we’re in physical pain, we’re unlikely to notice exactly how hard things are while they’re hard. It’s only once the fog lifts that we realise we’ve barely been able to breathe. But once it does lift – wow.

So that’s one of my many takeaways from 2018. Another one is a list of 70 books I managed to read.

Here are some of my favourites:

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Hunger by Roxane Gay (2017)
I’ve reviewed Hunger before here; I read it in March and am still thinking about it. Roxane Gay’s memoir about her relationship with her body, her place in the world and her struggle to be kind to herself made me tear up more than once. Raw and strong and beautiful, this is the kind of writing I would love to be capable of: to fully own a painful story, to not be diminished by it, and to share it in such a gracious, generous way is true skill.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
I’d never heard of Elizabeth von Arnim before I found this one on the bookshelf at my local Tube station, but it captured my heart within the first few pages. This story of four women spending a month by the Italian seaside to escape their dreary London lives has a lot more to it than I first would’ve thought; Elizabeth von Arnim was a keen observer of people, and while this is ultimately a light comedy, there is a depth and a genuine desire to enjoy life in her characters that I don’t see often in books. I look forward to reading more of her work next year.

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown (2017)
It’s been a Brené Brown year for me – I spent New Year’s Day walking miles and miles while I listened to The Power of Vulnerability, a collection of her talks that neatly summarises her work so far. It introduces the concepts of shame and of wholeheartedness, which Braving the Wilderness follows by talking about – bravery, and the courage to be oneself. It was a much-needed help during a tricky time this summer when I was alone too much and needed reassurance that, ultimately, we’re all a little lost in our own wilderness, and that if we find a way to make peace with this fact and own it, we will be okay.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013)
How did I never hear about this book before I found it in a charity bin? How has this book not won all the awards? The story of Alma Whittaker spans such a wide range of topics, over 19th century botany to the theory of evolution, love and meaning, a brush with the divine and making peace with oneself late in life, and I cannot even. It absorbed me for the entire week I was reading it, and I was equally sad to let it go and excited to pass it on to the next lucky person.
(I seem to remember someone mentioning that if Ms Gilbert hadn’t been pigeonholed as a ‘chick lit’ author by the time this book was published, it would’ve won more prizes. I’m inclined to agree that if it had been written by a man, it probably would’ve had more attention.)

Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko (2007, this translation 2018)
I’m not the biggest fan of Fantasy or Sci-Fi, but I’m forever low-key looking for my next Harry Potter. So when something features a school, and it’s not immediately clearly a school for assassins (urgh), I’m interested. Pair that with the gorgeous cover, and I needed to read it.
Much like with the (very different) Signature of All Things, I lived and breathed this book, in which the teenage protagonist Sasha Samokhina, through a series of very odd events, enters the mysterious Institute of Special Technologies. What follows is a puzzling, alienating and atmospherically very Eastern European story about a girl trying to do well at a school where ‘doing well’ is just as hard to define as the tasks that are being set. The translator Julia Meitov Hersey has done what I imagine is an incredible job (how do you even begin), and I’m so glad this book is available in the English language. I really hope the rest of the series will follow.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)
The blurb for this book makes it sound like a murder mystery, but don’t be fooled – this one is special. I usually try and avoid books about loneliness (I read too many of them in 2017), but I’m glad this one found me. I Love You Too Much follows Paul, the 13-year old son of a rich Parisian couple, in the aftermath of their divorce. Ignored by his father and overlooked by his mother, Paul seeks solace in food and his friendship with his mother’s help, until he becomes friends with Scarlett, a popular girl from his school. Just as things start looking up, Paul sees something he shouldn’t have seen. I can’t say too much without spoiling the plot, but I Love You Too Much is intelligent and subtle and devastating and followed me around for days after I’d finished it.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry (2018)
I resisted this one for quite a while, but after seeing a lot of glowing (and slightly concerning) tweets, I caved and bought it for Christmas. Someone on Twitter said they had to remove it from their nightstand in order to be able to sleep, and the same happened to me; I could not sleep with this book near me. Set in modern day Prague (which you wouldn’t know if people weren’t texting), the story follows a middle-aged Englishwoman named Helen Franklin, who comes into the possession of a collection of texts about Melmoth the Witness, a female figure that has been haunting the sites of human atrocities for millennia. Not free of guilt herself, the more she reads, the more Helen herself begins to feel watched.
Melmoth is a ghost story in which the ghost is less scary than those it haunts. Having committed crimes too big to confess, the people she visits carry their actions throughout their lives doomed to be followed by their guilt, with absolution so impossible that there seems to be only one way out. At times it’s true that Melmoth feels a little preachy and too bluntly commenting on the times we live in, but that worked for me. In terms of atmosphere, I can’t think of anyone who can match Sarah Perry here (maybe apart from Lionel Shriver with We Need To Talk About Kevin). It was terrifying and so, so good.

**

Looking back, 2018 seems to have been the year of books with a high emotional impact. Reading more than one book per week at times made me feel like I was racing through them rather than properly taking them in, so I’ll see if something can be done about that next year. But overall, it has been a great journey and I look forward to the reading year 2019.

(PS: I did read books written by men this year. I had to check though to be sure – none of them stood out ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

All the books in March

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I know it’s been April for a while, but better late than never, right?!

Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells || 3/5
This book floored me a little. I’ve never read anything by H.G. Wells (yes, I know), so when I came across one of the most #relatable exchanges between a man and a woman since Cat Person, I was not prepared.
Ann Veronica, subtitled A Modern Love Story, is the story of our titular heroine who, in her early twenties at the turn of the 19th century, is still under the thumb of her father, who wants to decide over her comings and goings until he can marry her off. One day their disagreement escalates and Vee flees to London, where she realises that a young educated woman stands barely a chance to create a life that is independent of men. As we follow her on her struggle against a system that does not want her to succeed on her own, we encounter suffragettes, artists and scientists with varying attitudes towards life and the relationship between the sexes.
Ann Veronica makes some excellent observations of attitudes that are still around today (‘I respect and admire women too much to burden them with the ugliness of politics!’), but ultimately doesn’t go quite far enough for me. Ann Veronica’s time with the suffragette movement feels more like a confused phase than genuine conviction, and the ending seems like an indulgence for the author more than a gift to the reader. Altogether, not too bad for a book that is over 100 years old.

A Change Is Gonna Come by various authors || 4/5
This is a donation bin find from work – and what a find! A Change Is Gonna Come is a YA collection of 12 stories and poems by British BAME writers, aiming to ‘give creative space to those who have historically had their thoughts, ideas and experiences oppressed’. It’s an absolute treasure chest of stories dealing with race, racism, mental health, LGBTQ issues, history, the refugee crisis, disability and... time travel? Apart from being thoroughly enjoyable, this kind of book is the perfect argument for why we need diversity in writing and publishing – these are stories I’ve never encountered before, or not enough, and I really, really want more. I can’t wait to pass it on to the next happy reader.

I Still Dream by James Smythe || 3/5
I Still Dream is a (beautifully designed) book about artificial intelligence. The AI in this case is a system called Organon, created by Laura Bow in her teens during the 90s. The story follows Laura’s (and Organon’s) life as they follow the rise and development of another (commercialised) AI, SCION, as it worms its way into every part of everyday human life. I find it hard to describe what the book is about, because I couldn’t quite figure it out. The story spans Laura’s entire life (and some before and after), but I missed some sort of dramatic structure. While the narration mostly sticks with Laura, two or three chapters are inexplicably told from someone else’s perspective, but it takes pages to make clear who that person is. Neither Organon nor SCION are your average dangerous sci-fi AIs like HAL 9000 or VIKI, which is a nice change, but there is also no real sense of threat or stakes. The language seems geared towards people who know a thing or two about AI, so for me as a layperson who clearly didn’t get it, the overwhelming mood was ‘sounds like it’s gonna be okay, I guess’. Maybe the beautiful complexity I’ve read about in other reviews went right over my head. Who knows.

You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman || 4/5
A lives with B. B admires A and wishes she could be like her. A is dating C. A finds it more and more difficult to tell herself apart from B. Is B turning into A? Is A turning into B? Why have B and C never met? Would C prefer B to A if he met her?
I read this book in a bit over a day, which is a pretty intense experience. Afterwards I wrote in my journal: ‘It’s something I’m not sure I want to exist. I feel unclean, like I caught something.’
I find it hard to say what this book is about. It’s about consumer culture, about advertising, about body image and love and religion and identity. But overall, it’s just plain terrifying. I don’t think it is meant to be a horror novel and I wouldn’t classify it as such, but there is such a strong sense of displacement, of standing outside oneself watching the world like something completely alien and incomprehensible. As someone who experiences dissociation on a regular basis, this book touched something I’m not sure needed touching. One element that needs to be mentioned is the text design, at least in my edition: every chapter starts with a plain smiley emoticon. Like the book looking back at you. It’s fucking terrifying. I loved it.

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All the books in February (feat. #feministlitfeb)

And here we are in March. February has been a month of reading I didn't quite expect, and now I'm a little overwhelmed with it all. My TBR for FeministLitFebruary was ambitious, and I'm a bit surprised and impressed by myself to see how much I managed to read. I wish I'd written more reviews, but oh well. I'm still figuring it out.

Anyway, here's the roundup:

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen || 3/5
I read this for a creative project I was hoping to start, but it turned out I didn't have time for it this month.
This is my third Jane Austen book, and I just don't get them. With all their insight and many funny moments, my overarching annoyance at how obsessed with money and boring most of the characters are is just too much to enjoy them. And still, I miss them when I finished?? Sense & Sensibility is full of highly unlikeable characters, its ending is awful, and Elinor is one of the most frustrating protagonists I've ever come across. Can I stop reading these now please.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward || 4.5/5 || FeministLitFeb Challenge - An #ownvoices story
I read the book while a storm was raging through my own mind, so that might have to do with the way I experienced it, but goddamn. It's special.
Salvage the Bones follows the story of a family – three brothers, one sister, and their dad – in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, 12 days before the storm Katrina hits. Esch, the narrator and only girl in the family, has just discovered she is pregnant.
I tried to write a full review for this title, but my words can't do it justice. It's a beautifully written, immersive read about motherhood and strength and destrucion that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Brave by Rose McGowan || abandoned
I tried, and gave up on page 40. This is not a book that should be judged by its literary merit, of course not. But dear god it would have benefited a lot from some editing. The book is written in a 'stream of consciousness' kind of way, which I imagine makes for an intriguing audiobook, but is exhausting in writing. It lacks structure and is full of anger and a kind of 'I immediately saw through the bullshit' superiority that made it hard for me to want to keep reading. Rose McGowan has been through a lot and she has every right to be angry, but I've decided not to follow this particular story.

Six Stories & an essay by Andrea Levy || 4/5 || Instagram review || FeministLitFeb Challenge - A book written by a black woman
'I am not in the habit of making friends with strangers. I am a Londoner. Not even little grey-haired old ladies can shame a response from me. I'm a Londoner – aloof sweats from my pores.'
This short read explores the concept of identity throughout three generations, all inspired by Andrea Levy's own experiences or those of her family: the young man from the West Indies fighting for the British during the War; the Jamaican woman on her way to England full of expectation for a better life; and the immigrant's daughter, English through and through to the point where she needs to be made aware she is black. The essay that precedes the stories tells Levy's own story of growing up in a Highbury council flat, so unaware of her ancestry as the descendant of slaves that she considered herself white, and had to re-learn what it means to be a product of the shared history between Britain and the Caribbean.
Like a complex gemstone that looks different from every angle, this book provides a variety of short but impactful stories that should best be read in one sitting to appreciate this book as a whole.
(Also, can I just say – this Tinderpress edition is lush. The thick stock it's printed on, the clear foil on the cover, the handwritten titles? Oh my god.)

Hunger by Roxane Gay || 5/5 || full review here || FeministLitFeb Challenge - Feminist Wildcard
THIS BOOK THOUGH. It's amazing. Read it.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas || 3/5 || FeministLitFeb Challenge - Feminist Fiction
This book is being sold by comparing it to The Power and The Handmaid's Tale, and I think that kind of marketing does it a disservice. Unlike the distinctly sci-fi/dystopian books by Naomi Alderman and Margaret Atwood, Red Clocks feels a lot more immediate and relatable: its America is one that looks well possible by 2020. Its horror is more subtle and takes a step back to make space for its characters, who are each impacted in a different way by the new legislation (abortion is illegal under any circumstances, and adoption is only possible for married couples). It's an immensely readable book that I looked forward to picking up each time, invested in all four main characters and their struggle for personal freedom.
But I think it tries too hard. Someone on Goodreads called it 'literary frills', and that's what they are – the narrator does not refer to the women by name, but title (the wife, the daughter, the biographer, the mender), which feels superfluous since they clearly have names; there are very disjointed bits of writing linked to a polar explorer Ro is writing about, which are either by the explorer herself or by Ro, and it's never quite clear what they are for; and especially in Gin's chapters there are bits of literary dissociation when the writing seems to slip in some kind of fever dream that made me wonder what I'm reading each time. I don't think any of these features are necessary, as the women's stories are engaging enough in themselves, and they distract more than they add. This would have been a gorgeous, important book without those frills.

Inferior by Angela Saini || 4/5 || FeministLitFeb Challenge - Feminist Non-Fiction
Can we take a second to admire this cover — thank you.
This seemed like the perfect book to read for this challenge: an exploration of the way science has been used to prove that women are the weaker sex, and what we know now. It looks at intellectual ability, physical differences and aging (or, 'What are old women good for'), looking at studies very different from the ones we always read about in the news. For someone who doesn't read as much non-fiction as she should, I found this book very well structured and very readable, and I have come away with even more respect for the female of our species: we are mighty, and I didn't even know half of it.

This was my first ever reading challenge, and I really enjoyed this. Maybe I'll do another one in the future.

But for March: easy reads.

All the books in January

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And here we are – the end of January! It's been a good month for reading.

The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown || 4/5
I've had this lecture series in my Audible account for at least a year, and its time came this New Year's Day. I walked for miles all day, listening to Brené Brown's soothing but competent voice for hours (she sounds like such a mom, in the best possible way). It's a brilliant introduction to her work on living with vulnerability and cultivating what she calls wholeheartedness. I took a lot of notes.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan || 3/5
I found this on the book exchange shelf at my local Tube station and read it in a day. A young couple, Edward and Florence, arrive in a small hotel in Dorset by Chesil Beach for their honeymoon. They haven't had sex with each other before, and as the couple approach the act with mixed feelings, they reflect on their individual upbringings and future together. The point of view flips in between the two characters, highlighting the weight of things unspoken between two people who love each other dearly, but whose 'companionable near-silence' has created no space for true intimacy. I found it a stunningly written book, but was unable to root for or even like either of the two.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki || 5/5
A re-read. Ruth Ozeki is one of my favourite authors, and this might be my favourite book of hers. The story is told between two women: a teenage girl named Nao who, having grown up in Sunnyvale, California, struggles to adapt to life in Japan after her family has to move back; and Ruth, an author with writer's block who finds Nao's diary washed up on the beach of a tiny Canadian island years later. Beautifully written, the story is packed with history and information about Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism (Nao's great-grandmother is a nun), as well as thoughtful meditations on time, suicide, conscience and the nature of stories. A single-paragraph review doesn't do this very special book justice, so I'll just say that I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani || 3/5 || full review
A short novel about a Parisian couple whose nanny murders the children. While I appreciated the glimpses into the lives of several quite different people, I struggled to feel empathy for any of them. The story gradually builds the suspense and sense of unease in a skilful way, but stumbles and falls towards the end, where it feels unfinished.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue || 4/5 || Instagram review
This one's been on my TBR for quite a while, and I'm glad I've kept it until now! Set in the mid-2000s, the story follows a young Cameroonian family struggling to stay in the United States. The husband, Jende, lands a job chauffeuring a Wall Street banker and his family, and soon his wife, Neni, is asked to help out as well. They seem to be doing okay, until the financial crisis hits. Behold the Dreamers is an engaging read that draws the reader into the worlds of two very different families. While it focusses on Jende and Neni, we learn plenty about their employers and their own battle with the American Dream. The book makes space for everyone without taking sides, explaining their actions but not excusing them. Another book I'd absolutely recommend.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney || 4/5
This is an odd book in that I absolutely loved reading it, while disliking each single character. The titular friends are Frances and Bobbi, two 21-year old ex-lovers-now-best-friends, and Melissa and Nick, a thirty-something couple they befriend when Melissa writes a profile about the girls. The story is told from the perspective of Frances who, as Bobbi gets closer with Melissa, starts an affair with Nick.
Frances speaks with a sharp self-awareness that is an absolute joy to read, although what is most interesting about her is everything she doesn't talk about – as she obsesses over Nick, she glosses over health and family matters like they don't touch her, and other characters frequently remark on how impossible it is to read her. But as intriguing as her background seems to be, she is infuriating in her passivity. Nick is an unbelievable dickhead, Melissa is unlikeable from the start, and Bobbi, who seems the most intelligent and aware of the group, does not get enough to say or do. When I saw that the book had two parts I hoped that the second part would contain the events from Bobbi's point of view, and I'm still a bit disappointed that's not the case. This novel is immensely readable and polished, with some memorable scenes that were quite hard to read at times, but I wish the characters had just been a bit more likeable.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys || 4/5
Oh my god, this book is capital-S Sad. It follows Sasha, a woman staying in Paris after personal tragedy, trying to make it through; she walks the streets during the day and sits in bars and cafés at night, reminding herself not to cry in public.
Sasha's sadness is thick and heavy and difficult to carry as a reader, so despite its small extent this book took me the longest to read. Which works so well, as everybody who has ever been this kind of sad will know – how the days stretch and become one long, endless grey fog. I want to read more by Jean Rhys, but I think I need a break for a bit.