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:
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)_/¯)