I hope you’re reading these words from underneath a pile of books and brie. That’s certainly how I wrote them. My working calendar is always shaped by books, but there’s nothing like time off reading, disappearing utterly from this world. The last year in books had some special moments.
Few books thrilled me so much this year as Trick Mirror by New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, essays on themes of feminism, online attention economy, religion, drugs and lifestyle fads, all approached with thoughtfulness and sharp insight into how capitalism shapes modern lives insiduously. I enjoyed every page of this brilliant, zesty cultural criticism. Just as rich and fascinating were the food-based essays in The Gastronomical Me by raconteur MFK Fisher, originally published in the 1940s but entirely new to me, with a startling ability to peer into people’s lives and desires.
I dedicated columns in 2019 to other favourites. Like Baader-Meinhof symdrome, becoming aware of something and then noticing it everywhere, we often see parallels between one book and the next, or with our surroundings. Lanny by Max Porter is indistinguishable in my mind from the circumstances in which I read it, after a long walk compatible with the book’s lush setting of dens in ancient woods. It’s a heartfelt, humane, gloriously playful plea for understanding and creative freedom.
In memoirs, there was Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, documenting poverty and how it shapes a life, and the many homes she lived in as a child (including a stop in Coatbridge, where I grew up). Zeba Talkhani’s fascinating My Past is a Foreign Country is a journey in Muslim feminism and what it was like to grow up in Saudi Arabia. Both are searching and written with empathy, for others as well as themselves, having come to adulthood through circumstances restrictive to self actuation. Limmy’s Surprisingly Down to Earth and Very Funny satisfyingly did what it said on the tin.
Many more I didn’t write about. Highlights include Say Say Say by Lila Savage, the title reflecting the grasping vocabulary of a woman being cared for, her carpenter husband who has come round to hiring help, told from the perspective of the young woman who enters their life.
Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth was an impulse buy, a luxurious rarity for me. I was in Dublin for work, browsing the handsome Winding Stair Bookshop which faces onto the Liffey. Having emerged gasping from writing my own book and handing it in, I sought something absolutely nothing to do with my research. Only afterwards did I find out it caused scandal in the author’s native Norway, the adult sibling inheritance disbute plot said to be a thinly fictionalised, with the author’s own sister writing a competing family narrative. It’s a page-turner, and wise on the subject of family estrangement.
Ducks, Newburyport by Edinburgh’s Lucy Ellmann, shortlisted for the Booker, was brilliant, bold, and radical in its 900 plus page devotion to the inner world of a contemporary American woman grappling with national and domestic concerns while baking tarte tatins. Ellmann’s sharply honest interviews have been a treat in themselves. Just as innovative was Meena Kandasamy’s Exquisite Cadavers, which pairs a love story with annotations, the author’s documentation of her process an attempt to wrestle back authorial control from reviewers erronously labelling her writing as memoir.
Joint winners of Saltire First Book of the Year Award, Threads of Life by Clare Hunter and The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt, taught me lots about Scottish nature and history in their absorbing, meticulously researched pages. Scottish publishing excelled in translation this year, as Sandstone Press won the Man Booker International with Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (translated by Marilyn Booth), an Omani family portrait over decades built up from many perspectives. The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada (translated by Chris Andrews) was a thought-provoking novella from Charco Press, a memorable, odd story of a travelling preacher and teenage daughter who take refuge with a rural mechanic.
Another lingering tale was Berg by Ann Quin, the first novel from the working class, avant-garde 60s writer, recently brought back into print and prominence, and as odd, seedy and thrilling as this sentence suggests: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.”
For work, I accompanied author Sarah Henstra on tour, whose 90s-set novel The Red Word draws on mythology to critique sex and consent in American campus life. She packed an audience into London’s one year old The Second Shelf, which sells antiquarian books by women in a concerted effort to do something about the rare book trade habitually ignoring them. It’s a glorious cavern, full of glee and camaraderie.
It had always been a dream of mine to visit Vienna. A trip booked a decade ago was cancelled when Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull grounded flights across Europe, weather maps scattered with black ash. I made it this time, invited to talk about James Joyce alongside Irish author Sara Baume. We sat drinking wine listening to an Austrian-Hungarian translation of Ulysses by Daniel Syrovy and Daniel Fuchs-Bauer, who approach the gargantuan task by doing a bit each year. I couldn’t understand much, but succumbed trance-like the hot, still evening, as repeated references to character Father Conmee pointed like arrows at which page we were on.
On the same trip, we were invited to dine at the Irish ambassador to Austria’s residence, the kind of weird, lovely, and improbable event books have sometimes brought into my life. In the midst of a punishing heatwave, where the day before European Pride marchers cooled under the pavement patterings of a burst firehose, we stood by the flung-open windows while eyeing up the well stocked bookshelves. After that, it was onto Paris, where I read a short story at English language bookshop Shakespeare and Co from anthology We’ll Never Have Paris edited by Andrew Gallix, exploring how the city looms in the imaginations of outsiders. If all of this sounds sickeningly glamourous, that’s exactly why I’m writing it down: it was rare, and I feel lucky. Inevitably, while there, I bought more books, including Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, which I read on the remaining lazy days, lying around too hot to do much else. Roll on next summer and another year of good reading.