I didn’t write one of these for 2018, which is rather a shame in hindsight as I love looking back at what I’ve read and it’s so easy to forget. In fact, one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to keep a record of the books I’ve read, with a score and a short description. I know that there are apps I can use for this but I’m using a real-life notebook – I’m old-fashioned that way.
When I sat down to try and remember which books I’ve read this year, and which have stood out for me, I realised how much of this year was lost to feeling unhappy and anxious. Sometimes it’s only when we look back, and are feeling a little better, that we can see how uncomfortable things have been. A large proportion of 2019 was spent in comfort reading – rereading books, or only reading crime novels which don’t use my brain much. I was looking for books to escape into, rather than ones to make me think. Some more challenging books I attempted took me months to read, or were returned to the library unread. I’m glad to have noticed this, and will be working to push myself a bit more this year – there’s nothing wrong with rereading, or only reading crime novels, but for me this type of reading keeps me in a shallow loop, while deeper reading could help me feel better faster.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
This is one of the more difficult books I read, which took me some months to get through even though I was enjoying it. Part personal memoir, part art history, part biography of several artists, her writing is stunning. She weaves the stories and different time periods together effortlessly, teaching the reader about art and social history without lecturing. I didn’t know most of the artists she mentions, but I do know Hopper and Warhol, and her writing made me see their work through new eyes. Her exploration of loneliness as part of the human condition really spoke to me, and I feel closer to all the artists she mentions as a result. The Tate Modern have a Warhol retrospective later this year, which I’ll be going to when I wouldn’t have otherwise. A beautiful book, which will be worth revisiting.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
I watched the BBC adaptation of North and South for the first time this year, absolutely loved it, and immediately picked up the book, which is just as good if not better. There’s a lot of British social history in there, similar to George Eliot’s Middlemarch and others. Plus of course I love a good strong female character, and Margaret Hale doesn’t take any crap from anybody.
The Bisexual Option by Fritz Klein
I’m not sure about this book’s title – I don’t think anyone wakes up and thinks ‘what are my sexuality options today?’ – but it was a huge source of information and comfort to me at a time of great confusion. I fully accepted my bisexuality this year while on a holiday in Somerset with my parents, and I felt totally lost and frightened. I couldn’t speak to anyone in person and the only person I felt ready to tell over text was on holiday. Thank goodness for Kindles and Wi-Fi – I bought this book and, through reading it, began to feel less alone.
The Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend has been on the bestseller lists for a while now, and I have thought about reading it several times but haven’t because I hate the cover (also a good friend tried it and really didn’t like it, which put me off). When I did eventually read it, I swallowed the whole series of four books within a very short time. I wasn’t always sure why I liked them – the central characters are, in many ways, completely unappealing – and yet the writing is so evocative, and the portrayal of the difficulties of female friendship is so interesting, that they kept me hooked. Another set of books which also taught me a lot about the social history of a place – I haven’t visited Italy much and know little of its history, and these books all rely heavily on the historical context of the country and Naples in particular.
Educated by Tara Westover
This is another book which has been doing the rounds on the bestseller lists this year. It’s the true story of a woman brought up in a very strictly religious house, with a mentally unwell father who cut his family off from the outside world as much as possible. They have no access to education, or modern medicine (except in direst emergencies). Her writing is incredibly atmospheric, with some very difficult descriptions of physical pain and abuse, and the story of her finding her own salvation is beautiful. I’d love to say it inspired me to do more with this ‘one wild and precious life’ I’ve been given, but actually I read it when I was feeling down, so mainly it made me feel guilty for not being more present and ambitious. I took pictures of many quotes from it, so perhaps revisiting those when I’m in a better frame of mind will give me a more positive message.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing. Her ideas are so unusual, and this is one of my favourites of hers so far. The book moves between two time periods, one with Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein as a young woman in 1817, and the other time period set now or slightly in the future, centred around how we are changing our bodies and the influence of AI. One of the main characters is a trans man, who falls in love with a man who thinks of himself as straight – their story and conversations are gorgeous. There’s also an interesting and at times hilarious investigation of sexbots and cryonics – both subjects which have fascinated me since reading To be a Machine a few years ago. I’m now on a mission to read Winterson’s back catalogue.
The Bad / Unfinished
Normal People by Sally Rooney
This book has won a lot of prizes, and lots of people have loved it. I thought the writing was good, but I really didn’t like the characters and spent most of the book wishing I could personally put the female protagonist into a lot of therapy.
Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
I think Matt Haig is a wonderful person and his writing is so important, and has helped a lot of people. However, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get into it. Reading this book on anxiety made me a lot more anxious, because each chapter is only a page or two long, and the constant flitting from one thing to another made my brain feel like it was going to explode. I definitely wouldn’t say it was bad, just not for me. Sorry, Matt.
Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
We read this for my book club at work, and most of us struggled. The concept – using data, mainly from Google searches, to uncover people’s darkest desires – I thought was promising. However, it’s not much of a surprise to me to learn that people are more racist than they want to admit publicly, and people who say they’re straight watch gay porn. I also found his writing a bit tedious and self-congratulatory. I only made it halfway through before getting tired and giving up.
Author of the Year
This year I fell in love with the film Call me by your Name. It’s a beautiful love story between two men, set in Italy in the height of summer. A friend and I watched it at about the same time and had very different opinions on the motivations of one of the main characters, so I resolved to read the book to see how Oliver was really supposed to come across. Aciman’s writing is achingly lovely – a favourite simile of mine described identity as ‘a false-bottomed drawer’ – and one of the best speeches in the film, from Elio’s father to Elio, is copied word for word from the book.
Happily for me, Aciman has just released a sequel, Find Me, continuing Elio and Oliver’s story. The conversations people have may be a little other-worldly in their honesty and openness (to this slightly cynical Brit anyway) but the writing continues to be some of the best I’ve ever read. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Aciman’s books.
I also love that Elio and Oliver continue to be bisexual – or maybe even pansexual – in both books. The film Call me by your Name was heralded as a great gay love story, and it is, but both men are plainly bisexual, and it would be nice for people to acknowledge it!
NB In terms of number of books read, this should really be Robert Galbraith a.k.a. JK Rowling. I read the entire series this year, mainly for the central will-they-won’t-they love story. However, one of the books – The Silkworm – is sticking in my head for the wrong reasons, as it was grotesque, and when I read the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, I actually guessed the murderer, which has never happened before. Also, I am appalled by Rowling’s recent transphobic comments. For someone who did so much to open children’s minds, and preached through Dumbledore a message of acceptance, it was very personally disappointing that she doesn’t accept trans women as women.
Author of the Year, every year, could also be Josephine Pullein-Thompson, who wrote many children’s pony books from the 1950s to the 1980s. They are my go-to for proper comfort reading before bed, and I’ve reread them a lot this year. Thank you Josephine.