Just before Christmas, I wrote a list of my favourite books I’d read in 2018 for Five Books. I really enjoyed the opportunity it gave me to reflect on what I’d consumed – so much so that I thought I’d make a habit of recording it as I go. So: here is my first instalment, recording the books I’ve read in the first quarter of 2019, with a few brief thoughts on each.
For work/research I read a lot of scraps of nonfiction, wherein I am filleting the texts for hard facts; this isn’t reading-for-reading’s-sake, and many of these titles are not written to be read from cover to cover, so I don’t include them in the list below. (They’ll be recorded in the references/bibliography of my book when the time comes.)
If I’m honest, reading is source of both joy and anxiety. The inflow of new titles into our house is greater than my capacity to read them, so a towering pile of guilt builds up over months until I crack and either shelf them unread, or donate them. I’m also very promiscuous in my reading habits, apt to start but not finish many books, something that really doesn’t reflect the books’ quality so much as the mood I happen to be in. Once I lose momentum, I hate to plough on – and I see no shame in abandoning a book part-way.
As a result, the books that I do make it through tend to be ones I’ve really enjoyed. Now that I’ve written them down, I see that it does add up quite quickly – which makes me feel better. Anyway: I love to discuss/debate/dissect books with others who have read them, both in terms of content and in craft. So drop me a line if our reading paths have crossed! I’m @calflyn on Twitter.
The Writing Life / Annie Dillard – I loved, loved Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and this is more of the same. She’s lyrical but unpretentious, dryly funny and incredibly wise. She’s perhaps my favourite author right now, and – as a writer myself – I can’t tell you how reassuring I found this book, and how beneficial it is to demystify the creative process. She calculates that Thomas Mann produced a publishable page a day, and as a result was “one of the most prolific writers who ever lived”; if you can produce “a usable fifth of a page a day” you are on track to produce a book every five years, which is a good rate for literary writers. So we must be realistic and not constantly berate ourselves for slowness.
Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life / Peter Godfrey-Smith – I have a fascination with the link between brain and being, having studied experimental psychology (which encompassed neurophysiology and animal behaviour) as an undergraduate. So this book is right up my street and could not be more fascinating. Godfrey-Smith uses the evolution of the octopus as a prism through which to examine subjective experience and intelligent thought from a non-anthropocentric viewpoint, and ask mind-bending questions about what it really means to ‘feel’ and to ‘think’. Plus, it’s packed with enchanting tales from his interactions with octopuses and cuttlefish while diving.
Motherhood / Sheila Heti – Intellectual deep-dive into one woman’s decision whether or not to have children. Highly relatable, excellently parsed and refreshing to see a topic that I and my peers consider on a daily basis dissected in the same painstaking manner as we use in late-night discussions. Her coin-tossing divination dialogues are a brilliant (dazzling!) narrative device that also (to my mind) underlined the randomness of responses she got when asking other women about their personal experiences of motherhood, the advice they gave based on anecdotal evidence, and how really the process is less about finding answers than learning to ask the right questions.
The Way to the Sea / Caroline Crampton – A wonderful nonfiction debut written by a friend of mine, the journalist, podcaster and former New Statesman staffer. She’s written a beautiful book about tracing the Thames from source to estuary; this is a topic close to her heart as she spent her childhood sailing in its waters after her parents emigrated – by yacht – from South Africa to London. It’s cultural history, memoir and straight history all swirled together, with lovely passages that highlight the bleak beauty of an unglamorous stretch of English coastline. I wrote a blurb for the cover: “A fascinating, brilliant book that carries you downstream on a quick-flowing current.”
The Nature Cure / Richard Mabey – A gentle, meandering and erudite account of the author’s recovery from a period of depression and grief, helped by his exploration of the countryside surrounding his new home in Norfolk. I’d heard a great deal about this book and only just now got round to reading it. Having read many of the books it has inspired (or, at least, influenced) since its publication in 2005 – especially Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which are raw and visceral in their emotional content, while still hitting the high notes in their lyrical descriptions – I actually found this somewhat mild in comparison. It’s nicely constructed, and moving in its own restrained way. I could learn a lot from Mabey’s craft and encyclopedic knowledge.
Weeds / Richard Mabey – More from Mabey: this time, a cultural history of weeds and worts. I started reading this as research, but in fact found myself sucked in – and genuinely riveted and delighted by its contents. How does he do it? Plants that can smell other plants; plants that can poison other plants; the moral judgements we impose upon flora; and the hidden lives of the ubiquitous vegetation our eyes skate over daily on the verges and untended scraps of land all around us… I’ll never look askance at a patch of weeds again.
The Way Home: Tales From a Life Without Technology / Mark Boyle – I really enjoyed this spiky, headstrong book from the climate activist and ‘moneyless man’. His new project is living without any form of modern technology; he’s built an off-grid cabin for himself and foregoes phones, electrical items, and anything else owing its existence to modern industry. It’s easy to pick holes in his reasoning (he’s allowed to read books, but not newspapers; he’s allowed to hitchhike but not to own a car; etc, etc) and this is only really a liberating lifestyle choice if you have no dependents and are in good health. Still, it’s a thought-provoking experiment. Boyle is Thoreauvian in his disgust for industrialisation, and the division of labour inherent to industry, that alienates us from the land. Made me think again about the purpose of technology in my life.
Salt on my Tongue: Women and the Sea / Charlotte Runcie – I wrote a review of this unusual mish-mash of nautical history, sea shanties and pregnancy memoir for Prospect: “[Runcie] considers what it means to be a mother and exist, at least in part, in relation to others… It is raw and frightening. She quotes a fisherman’s prayer: “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small!” Some of the seagoing facts could be stripped away, to leave only the most powerful images. But this is an affecting book. Runcie writes beautifully, her words carefully weighed and balanced.”
Outpost / Dan Richards – I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this and loved this series of adventures to romantic ‘outposts.’ They are many and varied, but take in a Japanese monastery, a Swiss writers’ retreat, Keruoac’s Desolation Peak and a Mars ‘colony’ in Utah. Richards’ has a vast descriptive vocabulary (new to me: vermicular, or wormlike; tumulus, a burial mound; lingel, a leather thong) and there’s a winning sense of derring-do to his adventures in remote places – he can’t drive – which reminded me a little of the 19th century adventure stories of Isabella Burton or Mark Twain’s Roughing It.
The Accidents / Caleb Hannan – a short, true story about an American man who murders two wives. Couldn’t gulp it down fast enough; it’s a good example of the true-crime genre, and draws on some excellent deep reporting by Hannan.
Little Black Book: A Toolkit for Working Women / Otegha Uwagba – It’s a self-help book, but a useful one. I guess I knew most of the points it makes already, but you can never hear them often enough. A book like this helps you to stay focused on what you want and what you should be doing. Uwagba reminds us to value our time, ask for what we are worth, and to take strategic decisions so as to constantly move in the direction we intend.
Paulina and Fran / Rachel B Glaser – Sparkling novel portraying a friendship-cum-rivalry between two art school students. (More accurately: it’s about a love triangle, although that description affords their unwitting third-point more weight than he really deserves.) This is satire so closely observed it borders on cruelty: Glaser conjures up a vividly real social scene of performative hedonism and self-conscious Bohemianism, while the girls’ increasingly charged relationship tires and thrills them in equal measure. I loved this book.
In Our Mad and Furious City / Guy Gunaratne – A highly acclaimed debut novel that seems to have been shortlisted for every award going this season. It follows several residents of a multicultural London housing estate during the tense 48 hour build-up before a far-right demonstration that ends in tragedy. Gunaratne deftly captures the voices and kaleidoscopic vernaculars used by this inner-city community. (Note: I listened to this as an audiobook, which I highly recommend. Ben Bailey Smith and Lou Marie Kerr leap chameleon-like from character to character.)
The Blind Assassin / Margaret Atwood – Winner of the Booker Prize in 2000. An elderly heiress looks back upon her life in Canadian high society, as she relates the series of events that led to her sister’s suicide and her own fall from grace. Interweaving newspaper articles, multiple timelines and a pulp fiction novel-within-a-novel, Atwood neatly unravels a century-long story of intrigue, scandal and untruths. You don’t need me to tell you this is a great book and a modern classic. I only wish I’d read it before now.
The Miniaturist / Jessie Burton – I picked up the book after binge-watching its (very good) BBC adaptation on a transatlantic flight. It’s a charming story that feels both contemporary and yet true to its historical setting of 17th-century Amsterdam. There’s some lovely sensual episodes about the tasting of imported sugar, and I enjoyed the protagonist’s disconcertingly ambiguous relationship with the mysterious miniaturist.
The Dinner / Herman Koch – Page-turning, if rather unpleasant novel that begins as a comedy of manners but descends into something more disturbing. An interesting journey in terms of where my loyalties lay in terms of the characters’ likeability, and I loved the way it used a single dinner party as a frame, although overall it left me feeling somewhat unhappy and world-weary.
Milkman / Anna Burns – I finally got around to reading last year’s Booker Prize-winner; or rather, I listened to the audiobook (the easiest way of ‘reading-while-walking’). Burns’ prose has an interesting, ambling prosody that benefits from being read aloud, I think. She carefully teases out and untangles the attitudes and allegiances that define a community riven by sectarianism. Milkman is unsettling, shrewd, upsetting in parts and – unexpectedly – also very funny. It deserves all the praise it has garnered and more. The singular voice of Middle Sister will stay with me a long time.
Social Creature / Tara Isabella Burton – Likened by many reviewers to a contemporary The Talented Mr Ripley, this was a thriller that whipped along and had a glittering cast of bright, young literary things pulsating with murderous ambition and a talent for social media fakery. Fun, fast-paced, a little bit silly, this makes for a highly-literate beach read.
World War Z / Max Brooks – Nothing like the film, but at least as good; this is an ‘oral history’ of the Zombie War told through dozens of ‘interviews’ with combatants, eyewitnesses and commanders from around the world. The book is far less plot-driven, but it’s spellbinding if, like me, you have a morbid fascination with how, exactly, the world might respond to a sudden and incurable epidemic – and Brooks goes much further than most speculative writers in imagining how the world’s power balance might shift following a major global crisis. Plus obviously there’s loads of gore, sharpshooting and survivalist fantasy.
The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle / Stuart Turton – I bought this for entertainment on a flight back from the US and cor, it’s a wild ride. The plot is difficult to describe, but in short: it’s like a Cluedo video game. The narrative takes the form of a single character’s voice that leaps from body to body between the various attendees of a masquerade ball at a country house as a single fateful evening unfolds many times over. It’s… exhausting. But exciting too, and so fiendishly clever that you’ll forgive it many sins. I wasn’t satisfied by the ending, but honestly – by the time you make it there, you’re too amped up to mind.
The Vermont Plays / Annie Baker – Scintillating collection of four plays, my favourite of which is Circle, Mirror, Transformation – set in an amateur drama group and unfolding over a term’s-worth of weekly sessions. Baker specialises in unlikely combinations of people thrown together in confined spaces, with as much expressed in the awkward pauses between the lines (“a beat.” “two beats.” “a long pause.”) as is actually spoken out loud. Hope, disappointment, fear, love, jealousy – it’s all there, in the unkempt backyard of a coffee shop or a community hall, much of it unsaid but making its presence felt.
The Flick / Annie Baker – More from Baker (I can’t get enough). This one is possibly her most famous play, and it won her a Pulitzer. A similar, hyper-real scenario – this time, played out through the interaction between cinema staff between screenings – that lands a heavy blow where it hurts.
The Dead Animal Handbook: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry – An intriguingly macabre collection I stumbled upon in the library at MacDowell and slurped up whole. Standout poem for me in this anthology was Bill Moran’s ‘O.S.R.’ – “If you’ve ever swallowed painkillers without counting them / You can bury a bull. It’s the same thing. / You leave it in the grass and let it sink. / Dragging it out there’s harder.” And there are a lot of other gems in there if you don’t mind going dark and deep.
Collected Poems / May Swanson – This is a sizeable collection, so it’s been more of a dip-in-and-outer – but May Swenson (1913–1989) was new to me and I just love her lush descriptions. Here she is on a seashell collection: ‘…Some / sunsets. Some buttermilk / skies, or penumbras // of moons in eclipse. / Malachite greens, fish-eyed // icy blues, pigeon-foot pinks / brindled fulvous browns, // but most white like tektites. / Gathered here in a bowl…” I’ve been reading her with a notepad for jotting down phrases that jolt me.
Autobiography of Red / Anne Carson – God this was great. An epic poem, or a novel-in-verse, that begins as if it will be translated fragments of an ancient text (as per her Fragments of Sappho, which I’ve also been dipping into) but rapidly evolves into a surreal, synaesthetic modern-day tale of a young (red, winged) monster as he grows up, goes to school, falls in love, has his heart broken, studies philosophy and travels to volcanic landscapes. I was a little intimidated by the concept, but it’s extremely readable and full of deadpan humour.
Animals Strike Curious Poses / Elena Passarello (essays)
Harmless Like Me / Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (fiction)
Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret / Craig Brown (biography)
The World I Fell Out Of / Melanie Reid (memoir)