2017: My Year in Books

Rarely have I read more voraciously or more gratefully than I have in 2017. My commute is devoted to reading and I am incapable of going to work with only one book with me – I take two if not three in case one doesn’t take my fancy. This is partly because 2017 is the year I have started Actively Avoiding the News. I hit my emotional limit after the terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge, and the Grenfell Tower fire. Each horror on its own would have scarred me, but the headlines about lost partners and family members became so gratuitously designed to twist a knife in your heart that I became too angry with the media to want to engage. Instead, I read books, and read even more fiercely than I do normally. Here are a few highlights and lowlights.

The Good

How Not to be a Boy by Robert Webb

This is a late entry for 2017, as it was a Christmas present. The writing is brilliant, and his story is by turns very funny and completely heartbreaking. His take on masculinity and his wise words on how toxic it can be make this a vitally important addition to the feminist literary canon. I learnt an enormous amount about the pressure boys and men are under from a very young age, and had a little more insight than I needed into how a teenage boy’s mind works. How he had the courage to put to paper some of the ways he acted at university is beyond me – a more accurate title for those sections would be ‘how to be a complete penis’, and they make me want to instruct all girls not to date a man below the age of 25 – but that, I suppose, is his point. The patriarchy benefits nobody, not even white boys who went to university at Cambridge. This book should be compulsory reading for all.

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

I’ve tried to read Virginia Woolf before, and found it impossible, but something made me try again with Night and Day. I absolutely loved it. The characters are brilliantly drawn, the dialogue is perfect, and the relationship between mother and daughter is so accurate it’s uncanny. Some might find the moment-by-moment descriptions of emotional states wearing, but I thought they captured the difficulties of everyday trials and tribulations only too well. I’ve since tried reading a few others of hers, but so far they’ve all been too whimsical and ‘let’s float off on a tangent’ for me.

Happy by Derren Brown

This is a self-help book for people who hate self-help books. Brown argues against the popular case for endless positivity, pointing out how this can quite easily just make everyone feel worse. He outlines various ancient philosophies in very accessible language, and generally made me feel a whole lot better about things. This and Night and Day are now fixtures by my bed for nights when I’m having trouble getting my brain to calm down and switch off.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Towles’s novel Rules of Civility has been one of my absolute favourite books for about five years, and I was a little nervous about this second book. The hardback, which I loaned from the library, is simply enormous and the cover is brash and unappealing. However, once I got into it, this is a wonderful story. It follows an aristocrat in revolutionary Russia, who is put under house arrest in the opulent Hotel Metropol (which I was very excited to find afterwards actually exists, and if Russia wasn’t such an autocratic, sexist, homophobic shitshow of a country I’d want to go and blow a lot of money staying there). He makes friends and loses them and has more adventures than you would think possible in only one building. The whole thing is brilliantly atmospheric, and I loved the little bits of Russian history he slipped in, too.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr AND To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

I’ve read a lot more non-fiction than usual this year, and found some real corkers. These books were both excellent examinations of technology’s effect on modern life. The Shallows focusses on the ways the internet is affecting how our minds work – fascinating stuff, and frightening too. Our attention spans and short-term memories are getting worse and worse, and this has knock-on effects for our relationships and how we interact. We are getting less patient and more fidgety, our brains are tired and our expectations are getting bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale. To be a Machine follows the extraordinary world of transhumanism – people who want to extend human life spans, perhaps indefinitely, and perhaps by melding man and machine. The writing is superb, and along with The Shallows, it’s a great read for encouraging us all to take a step away from the technology and assess what’s really important to us.

The Bad / Unfinished

Agatha Raisin and a Spoonful of Poison by M.C. Beaton

I decided to give this a try as I grow worryingly close to reading every single one of Agatha Christie’s books, and thought I’d better look out for a “replacement” author now so the pain of having no more of her books to read will be easier to bear. However, Agatha Raisin is not for me. I read a couple and they’re reasonably funny but there is no skill involved in solving any of the crimes, only endless irritating returns to question the same people, long past most folk would have taken her to court for a restraining order, and then finding the culprit by falling over them by accident. Tedious.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

Having said that, this novel by my beloved Agatha is really rather dreadful. An attempt at John le Carre-esque spy thriller-ness is just confusing and tortured, the ending is baffling and it involved Poirot’s twin – which I think may be the one and only time he makes a (sort of) appearance. The only one of hers I haven’t enjoyed, so far.

How to Worry Less about Money by John Armstrong

Tepid. Obviously aimed at middle-class morons like myself who have time to read a book about worrying less about money, rather than people who actually need to worry about money like those who have to decide between feeding their children and paying for electricity. His main thought is that your worries about money are probably connected to something else, some other deep insecurity which isn’t actually anything to do with not being able to afford the latest iPhone. Well, duh. Don’t waste your time.

A Dog’s Ransom by Patricia Highsmith

Another attempt to find an enjoyable crime writer who isn’t Agatha Christie. Again, not my cup of tea. All rather odd and the sort of book where the mistakes people make are because they’re too stupid to take an obvious course of action. Tiresome and I skimmed the second half rather than prolong the pain any longer.

Underworld by Don DeLillo

Cracking opening chapter, total nonsense from then on. Something to do with a baseball, flitting between time periods, no clue who anyone is or why you should give a hot damn about any of them. No.

Author of the Year

It would be Agatha Christie for the second year in a row, and to be honest maybe it should be – I’ve read so many crackers of hers this year, particularly a few that aren’t Poirot or Marple: Crooked House, Sparkling Cyanide and Sad Cypress. All fantastic.

But one crime author who I returned to this year, and then read four books back-to-back, was Nicci French. I’ve read many of their books (it’s a writing partnership of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) and particularly enjoyed their series with Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist who gets caught up in a lot of police cases. Earlier this year I read Thursday’s Child, Friday on My Mind, Saturday Requiem and Sunday Morning Coming Down one after the other. The plots are exceptional and I love the characters and places that they’ve created. If Frieda Klein’s house was real, I would want to buy it. The books are very creepy but not revolting, which is good for me – I shy away from a few contemporary crime writers because they’re just too nasty. I once read a short story by Karin Slaughter which was so revolting and poisonous, it made me think she needs some serious psychoanalysis. And to stop writing immediately. But I can highly recommend all these Frieda Klein novels, which are intelligent and completely engrossing.

 

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2016: A few things left to say

Here we are at the end of 2016. From January onwards, there have been an abundance of social media posts about this being the worst year ever. You’ve all seen the gifs and the memes about what a crap year it’s been, and the posts listing the shit that has happened: Bowie, Prince, Brexit, Trump. The last few days it seems to have been another day, another celebrity death.

I don’t have much else to say about Brexit and Trump. They have dominated the news for the entire year. Instead I want to talk about the bits of 2016 that stick out to me as being particularly disappointing, partly because of the way they have been reported in the news and on social media – or rather, the way they haven’t been reported. While the deaths of much loved actors, musicians, and comedians are very sad, and I don’t want to take away from people’s grief, all these people will be remembered. Most of them lived full and interesting lives, and even if some were taken too soon and too suddenly, it is clear that they will live on in their arts and their fans.

None of us have been able to get away from Brexit all year. I am sick and tired of hearing the word and wish to goodness nobody had thought it up. I have largely tuned out of the negotiations or lack thereof, the ridiculous arguments about soft and hard and single markets and other nonsense. The truth is people voted for something they didn’t understand, something that seemed threatening and pointless, and nobody managed to articulate properly why it was something we needed. I’ve read a few articles laying the blame for this at the feet of the UK media, which have been reporting for decades on EU bureaucratic red tape, pointless studies on the shapes of bananas, and other ridiculousness, meaning that for years we have focussed on the negative. This shouldn’t be much of a shock: the media focuses on the negative 9 times out of 10 now. I already disliked following the news much because of that tendency, but this year my belief in our media has failed completely. At the same time as all the endless coverage of Brexit and Trump and the pages and pages of celebrity obituaries, some of the news stories of the year that have shocked me the most have barely caused a blip on the radar.

So far, I haven’t seen a single 2016 round-up article, meme, or social media update that mentions Orlando. This was the worst shooting in US history, and the worst crime against the LGBTQ+ community since the Holocaust. At the time I was bewildered by how little impact it made on my social media, and now I am twice as confused about why it is never mentioned, never alluded to in stories and speeches and thought pieces. Even at the time, the UK media coverage left a lot to be desired: the Daily Mail has been overt in its homophobia this year, and didn’t even put the story on the front page. Most UK newspapers focussed on the gunman’s connection to ISIS, even though it was clear from the start that the affiliation was tenuous at most. Owen Jones walked off a breakfast programme after the hosts refused to acknowledge that this was a homophobic crime. Unfortunately, happening as it did in the run-up to the Brexit vote, this tragedy got swept up and forgotten. I too am sad about the deaths of various famous people this year, and I am deeply disappointed in the outcomes of the referendum and election. But I hate the fact that these people, who died in the worst circumstances of terror and hatred, have been completely forgotten by so many.

Shortly after Orlando, Jo Cox was killed. I still don’t quite understand why her death knocked me so hard, but it did, and it still does. Perhaps because it seemed such a remarkably unlikely thing to happen in the UK: an MP be gunned down in the middle of the street, in broad daylight. It seemed completely unthinkable. Again, the newspapers glossed over the motivations for the crime, focussing instead on the idea that the gunman was mentally ill. I was completely confused, again. Why weren’t more people talking about his affiliation to far right groups? If he’d been connected to ISIS that would have been all anyone had to say. Why, when it was a white man who was committed to xenophobia and racism, was that fact not really talked about? Again, the news story got pushed out of the papers by the result of the EU referendum. Farage had the nerve to say that they had won ‘without a single shot being fired’. When her killer was sentenced, more newspapers covered the motivations behind the attack. Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time, when – potentially – it could have made a difference? Maybe I’m overestimating the effect better coverage of a woman’s violent death could have had. But I do think the media covered it poorly. Of course the Daily Mail was not to be outdone on this story either, as the sentencing of her murderer was moved to page 30. They even painted him as a sympathetic figure who just wanted Jo Cox’s help protecting his house from some sort of swarm of immigrants. What a repulsive rag.

Other devastating news stories from around the world appear to be getting more coverage as the year draws to a close. The pictures and stories coming out of Syria have been horrendous for some time, and there seems to be more being reported at the moment, as Aleppo is bombed out of existence. Sometimes it seems ridiculous to me that we in the UK have been complaining so much about a referendum which, yes, is ludicrous, a marker of social disharmony and is likely to bring about a great deal of change – quite likely negative for many of us, especially if you are a minority – but we are hardly being bombed out of our homes. I don’t want to minimise people’s fears, but it is good to gain some perspective and think of other people who have it worse and need our help.

Similarly, the situation in the Philippines has brought me up short recently. Their President, Rodrigo Duterte, is a complete psychopath. You may remember him being elected earlier in the year, saying he was going to crackdown on drug usage by sentencing users and dealers to death. Well it’s not turned out to be quite as official as that. It’s getting reported more now, but I didn’t hear a whisper about what was happening (and neither had my mum, who reads The Times every day and listens to BBC Radio constantly) until I read this New York Times article a month or so ago. They sent a photojournalist there who documented the deaths of 57 people in 35 days. Reports estimate that 6,000 people have been killed since Duterte took office. And this is not trial and law and order and sitting on death row. People who turned themselves in as drug users are being slaughtered in their own homes. Police turn up, shoot them (sometimes in front of their family and children) and then leave them. Later someone comes to collect the body. Police drive past on motorcycles and gun people down in the street. If you do look at the NYT article, take great care. We may think we’re immunised to pictures of violence these days but these photographs still haunt me.

I realise this is not a cheerful post. Basically I’m just giving some more reasons why 2016 was a bag of crap that aren’t talked about quite so often. Despite the death and the stupidity and the hatred, many good things have happened this year. We don’t hear about them because good news doesn’t sell. Several animals have been taken off the endangered list, which I’d never thought about as being a thing: somewhat pessimistically, I assumed that once an animal went on the endangered list, they were headed the way of the dodo. But giant pandas, humpback whales, and green sea turtles are no longer endangered. The number of tigers in the wild rose for the first time in 100 years. We have an Ebola vaccine. The survival rate of people with pancreatic cancers has risen by 9%. Leonardo di Caprio finally got an Oscar. While in many ways this has been a poor year in terms of progress for LGBTQ+ people, Taiwan is on the verge of becoming the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.

There is good news out there. What this year has shown me more than any other is how much we all live in a bubble. So many people on my social media were out preaching to the choir before the Brexit and Trump votes. Both results were a huge shock to me because I live in a comfy liberal circle of people. We have been fed on bad news for the whole year, and we have kept the circles going, feeding it back to each other in an endless cycle of ‘2016 IS THE WORST’. Some months ago I started feeling like ‘2016’ had become a separate thing, some kind of personality with its own agency that was out to cut us all down. Obviously, this is nonsense, and 2016 is far from the worst year in history. Have half our families been wiped out with the plague? Have all the men we know been sent off to war? Have we lived through a famine? Occasionally I understand why people must get so annoyed with the liberal people wanting the world to march forward on what we see as its inevitable journey towards freedom, democracy and love for all: as someone puts it in The West Wing, we are incredibly smug. I’m not saying we necessarily should change. I don’t really know how, and despite all the calls to action over the last few months, I’m not convinced anybody else does either. But I am frightened of the power that the media and social media have now, and that they are being used for deeply negative ends. From trolling, to negative feedback loops on everyone’s facebook pages, to fake news stories spread by bots and believed by half the people that see them. Perhaps we all need to think a little more about how we are using our influence, and spread a little more happiness. Even if it doesn’t change the world, bring the UK back into the EU and oust Trump (preferably before he even gets into the White House) at least it will make people smile instead of making them think, ugh, yes. This year was the absolute worst.