A year in reading

There are infinite ways to measure how a year has been; it is personal and political, happy and sad, reflective, impatient and meandering, but always full of change. When December rolls around it becomes the time of year we tally up the weight and value of our lives; of what matters, how we live and how the tiny passing molecules of our very being barrel into the world like wild thoughts at 4am in a sleepless half-light. Ideas as brief and fleeting as our lives, only to quietly disappear again into dust. 

What can I say today as we wake to the result of the UK Election? Hope is buried under a stark polemic fought through social media memes and half-truths spun round an axis of soundbites seeming to offer little change. So I say nothing. But even as the 2010’s are ending I find myself thinking it is too early, too raw to grasp what will define this decade and what hope the next brings us. 2024 is a long time. 

So instead I want to reflect on reading this year. What I have enjoyed, devoured, struggled with and unlearned. See if any of my book recommendations resonate so you too can dive into words to not only escape, but to find what holds the fabric of our very human and messy lives together, the universality held in those pages. 

I cannot recommend highly enough the collection of mastery that is Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers; edited by Kit de Waal and features a big contrasting cross section of writers who identify as working class. From the familiar Malorie Blackman, Stuart Maconie, Lisa McInerney and Louise Doughty to new (to me) work from Lisa Blower and Tony Walsh. The great thing is that this anthology offered a few writers their first published pieces so includes new names that you may not have heard of yet but really need to; weep as you read Loretta Ramkissoon’s ‘Which Floor?’ and Riley Rockford’s ‘Domus Operandi’ – amazing unique voices gathered to shatter the middle-class mainstream of publishing. 

Kerry Hudson’s memoir Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns – is a must read for understanding the heartbreaking immediacy of poverty in the UK. Kerry narrates a vivid childhood spent moving around B&B’s and council housing, from Scotland to the North East and Coastal Towns. It is a succinctly crafted narrative that uncovers the deadening effects of austerity policies that have and continue to inflict misery on families. Not an easy tread but an absolutely vital one. If you haven’t read any of Kerry’s writing before also make sure you dive in to her other work, Tony Hogan and Thirst. She is also crafts an excellent Twitter feed as well as masterminding this years’ Breakthrough Festival for all marginalised aspiring writers. 

How to be Champion by Sarah Millican – because sometimes you need a funny woman to tell you it’s all going to be okay and it’s never too late to learn new tricks, like stand up comedy! 

I had a little Sarah Winman phase reading Tin Man which has a beautiful poetry and sense of place to it, it is a short novel about  loss and grief on the changing streets of Oxford. I followed it up with her earlier work from 2011, When God Was A Rabbit. More magical realism than I usually enjoy but still very well crafted and a real decade spanning family saga, with a beautiful narrative following siblings through childhood and adulthood events. Very immersive and well plotted with superb characters. 

Torch by Cheryl Strayed, just because Wild was so good and this is her fiction/memoir-ish novel of her mother’s death. Moving and raw with that spirit lifting prose she does so very well. 

Pat Barker is like a gift of an accomplished writer that keeps on giving. I started with her first novel, Union Street from 1982. Composed of a collection of interrelated narratives of Geordie women living on the same street. It holds nothing back with the brutal opening section detailing the abuse of Kelly, which binds and divides the characters it takes you into the heart of female working class lives, centering on how they cope and keep families together. Yet, contrast this with Barker’s latest offering The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of  Homer’s epic poem focuses on the cost of war to women through the story of Briseis, Achilles’ concubine. Brilliant narrative which lifts the tale into something modern and pressing; how women create their own spaces in times of struggle. Also on a similar theme of Greek mythology is the wonderfully poetic Circe: by Madeline Miller

Other highly things I have loved this year and recommended: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – slick, epistolary narrative capturing a relationship broken by a injustice in a race and class divided contemporary USA. Very now.
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott– intriguing tale of the downfall of Truman Capote, told by the enigmatic women he betrayed. Pretty dazzling and slanderous!
Ordinary People by Sally Rooney; I wanted to love it. And it some ways I loved her way of capturing her generation. But I found it frustrating in parts – still worth a read.

I have read so many brilliant (and some not so,) short stories this year. One highlight for me has been The Hotel by Anne Enright; https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/06/the-hotel

Deborah Myer’s living memoirs parts one, Things I don’t Want to Know and two, The Cost of Living have brought me endless joy and I anticipate reading the third with a thrill- her candidness is to be admired.

Of course there is a Greek theme here too. Discovering Brenda Chamberlain’s writing has been an absolute gem. Her relatively unknown artistic  life and writing deserves much more attention – Rope of Vines has made me realise that there is a real place for women writing about the 60s dream on Hydra. Her version should be read before you think too long about Leonard Cohen and the masculine free-love narratives of artistic freedom. Her voice is of its time and provides a valuable counterpoint  – one of isolation and self-reliance, and holds a spirit of adventure of such rarity in sparse prose making her worthy of much more praise. I have just picked up the first full-length biography of Brenda Chamberlain by Jill Peircy to uncover more about her.

Compliment that with Mabel Bent’s Chronicles; rough sketch diary entries of her travels across teh Greek Islands in the 1890s. Mabel accompanied her husband Theodore on several explorations to then unknown islands. As some of the first travellers to experiencing Greek hospitality, festivals and freezing cold temperatures. The entries cover her perspective of bartering with locals and arranging boat rides, meeting women and ‘introductions’ to many well connected families along the way. It is another world of Empire and her journals are often bizarre and scathing commentary on the food and places they stay; administering medicines, adhering to customs, trading clothes and ideas. An interesting read, especially as it wasn’t written by Mabel with the intention of ever publishing it.   

After my visit to Sifnos I cought up on Sharon Blomfield’s Sifnos Chronicles, in two parts – which are lively, atmospheric pieces capturing her experience of being a Canadian visitor to the island, frequently returning again and again to capture a place she has fallen in love with and wants to call home. A heart-warming meandering immersion in Greek life when you need an escape . 

I have also fallen deeply in awe of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing. It was a book I had on my radar for a while, and for whatever reason had carried it around for longer than I’d wanted (when you are a nomad like me, that takes some doing as I shed possessions like a pigeon does its feathers). It  blew me away. An original narration, unique voice and heartbreaking not-quite-coming-of-age fiction that takes you into her bleak world and spits you out again – changed. 

An unexpected joy was Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, translated from Italian by Alex Valente. A moody and atmospheric tale of a missing girl and a murdered boy, hinged on a domestic drama with psychological implications. Elia lives in the rural Italy of abandoned industry and despair, his father is suffering mental illness and the tale entwines crime-noir and a coming-of-age tale. One to read quickly and devour its twists and turns. 

My list starts building for 2020 reading – still having Ducks, Newbury Port by Lucy Ellman and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments to devour over Christmas. I hold good intentions for keeping my head down in books so send me your top tips to breeze into the new decade!

I was just listening to author Louise Doughty on Radio 4  – she was talking about where she researched the settings of Platform Seven, her latest thriller. She talked about how she inadvertently found inspiration revisiting her past. Stumbling into Peterborough Station at night and finding these crossing places of transport hubs as waiting rooms where we all become anonymous. I thought about how much of my life has been spent in train stations and airports joining passengers staring at information screens silently waiting; all on the way to different places in their lives belonging neither to the place they came from, or the place they are going to. In limbo for a while, I realise now I have for too long been a lone figure waiting for something to happen.

So now I realise I want the next decade to be less waiting and more movement, less indecision and more action. Only now I see that all rests with me. Here is to a beautifully imagined 2020!