“I never feel lonely if I’ve got a book – they’re like old friends. Even if you’re not reading them over and over again, you know they are there. And they’re part of your history. They sort of tell a story about your journey through life.”Emilia Fox
I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. Their giant declarations of noble intent are destined to at best be forgotten within weeks; at worst they’re a stick to beat myself with for the rest of the year, proof of the enduring failure of my strength of will. But at the start of 2018 I decided to use the start of a new year to return to an old me. I committed to reading more.
As a kid I would stack several books at a time on my bedside table, dipping in and out of the lives of various characters, somehow keeping track of multiple plots, and occasionally sampling random facts about wildlife as a break for my over-active imagination. I was a vociferous reader – something my mum wryly attributes to being the calm middle child born between two tempestuous siblings. Books, she says, were an escape. And while pretty much everything else has changed in the intervening decades, that is one thing that remains the same.
Suddenly my own children were able to occupy themselves for stretches longer than 17 seconds. There were no more nappies to change and they would even trot off to the toilet unaccompanied, only yelling for assistance when their independence was limited by short arms. What else could I fit into those precious pockets of time after school as they dismantled the sofa for the third day in a row, or tucked into yet another fish finger dinner? What else would slot perfectly into snatched moments at the weekend as they trailed their dad into the garden to swing sawn-off golf clubs, butchered with bolt cutters, complete with handles fashioned from duct tape?
It suddenly felt like I had whole new minutes in the day, and those minutes certainly add up…
In 2018 (I think) I have read 31 books. These are my favourite 12:
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Agnes has been condemned to death but the cruelty of the Icelandic winter means she has to wait for the burial grounds to thaw before her execution can take place. There is no need for bars or chains on the farm where she waits out the season – winter provides a capable prison as to escape would only expedite her death. The slow, suffocating oppression of the setting is bleakly fitting as the reader gets to know a life unwillingly approaching its end.
Set in Iceland in the 1800s, a “crime novel” about a woman accused of murder wouldn’t normally leap off the shelves. It was an inspired recommendation from a friend however, and this saga on the nature of judgement, truth and justice was probably my favourite novel of the year.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Rooney’s disdain for the rules of writing, for me sanctified during a decade of teaching teenagers, initially made me long for the power of the red pen. I adhere to a 100 page rule however, and my initial curmudgeonly dismissal of the novel as contrived and self-conscious transformed into effortless page turning as Rooney’s character development drew me in. Thick with nuance and implicit hints at human motivation, it was never quite clear whether I was thinking their thoughts or my own and I barely noticed when I passed the century mark. I don’t think that at any point in the whole novel did I like any of the characters but somehow I felt sympathy and sadness for each in turn.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
My allegiance to punctuation already betrayed, I dived unhindered into Rooney’s second novel. It’s a love story that explores the agony of relationships in your teens and twenties. Like many readers, I instantly recognised my own past fruitless efforts to understand other people when I barely understood myself. Similar to Conversations with Friends, I found the middle section of the novel a little stilted but this could easily be due to the frustration of watching from the outside as time passes but no one progresses. In the worlds of Rooney’s 20-something characters, patterns of behaviour are inevitable and any self-awareness is a spiralling decade away. By the end of both novels I felt immensely relieved that the turmoil of my 20s is far behind me. It’s a suspicion I’ve had for a while, but these books confirmed that perhaps getting old(er) really isn’t so bad after all.
The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead
I tend to avoid fiction about slavery as I feel conflicted about being in receipt of entertainment at the expense of people’s lives. Despite my misgivings however I read this novel after it was given to me by a friend. It’s a compelling story about Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, who escapes along the underground railroad. She is brave, intelligent and resourceful – the novel is brutal and unremitting in its depiction of America’s horrific history. In particular the histories of North and South Carolina have stayed with me many months later.
Towards the end of the novel Cora’s musings on the nature of freedom allows Whitehead the license to expose how history is not left in the past and to highlight how its echoes continue to be felt down the decades. He quite justly questions the unfulfilled promises of the present day.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
On 13th October 2016, FLOTUS Michelle Obama took to the podium in New Hampshire and delivered an exhilarating speech without once naming the racist misogynist who was poised to take her husband’s place. With it she awakened something in me that I didn’t even know was sleeping.
As the minutes past rapt in the peaks, troughs, the ebb and flow of her masterful oratory, it felt like Obama spoke to me. She told me that the disgust, the rage, the feelings of violation which had shaken me with their strength, came from a place where that man’s name was inconsequential. We all knew this man; we’d all met him, she said. Michelle Obama gave me permission to be angry, and I’ve never looked back.
I know that for countless black women her story means more than it ever could for me, but this is what she means to me, and this is why I was so looking forward to reading her book. It does not disappoint. The same wit, style, grace, pride and intelligence permeates what is an incredible story, quite brilliantly written, and I hope we have not seen the end of it yet.
Dear Ijeawele: A feminist manifesto in fifteen suggestions by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
Much of the power of this tiny slip of a book lies in its concision. Adichie does not waste a single word in her 60-odd pages of perceptive, direct suggestions on how to empower a daughter to become a strong and independent woman. But reassuringly, in the introduction we hear Adichie’s uncertainty – she is not a woman who preaches simplicity nor who hides from complexity. She weighs up the immensity of the task her friend set her when she requested advice about how to raise her daughter to be a feminist and the ease of dispensing advice when we are sheltered from complex realities. But despite her concerns Adichie commits to trying to raise her child differently, in a way that will create a fairer world for both women and men. It’s a commitment I imagine many of us are also making, and this book offers a blueprint to help us along our way.
Natives by Akala/ Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
I read these two books in close succession to each other and the common threads that run through both were starkly apparent. In their own ways, both writers underline how our society is structured to privilege whiteness on all levels while their differences slam home the truth that there is no such thing as one single “black experience”.
Hirsch is middle class and female, Akala is working class and male; elements of their experiences are as different as their delivery. The difference in style also caused reflection: I was much more at ease with the tone and timbre of Hirsch’s book. A personal preference, perhaps? Maybe I just find it easier to relate to a female voice? Something else?
The sharp urgency of Akala’s commentary stung and slapped me around. Hirsch’s book was calmer, more measured, more authoritative, and… less angry. It was here that my creeping unconscious bias gave itself away. Perhaps the reason I preferred Hirsch’s book was because it sounded like the voices we’re told we should listen to. I already believe we’re all victims of narratives unconsciously absorbed from the world around us – we can’t escape them. Instead we have to be watchful, catch them when they arise and work to counter their toxic influence. Reading these books reminded me that when it comes to this work, there is no finish line.
No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein’s latest study in shock politics made my head, heart and soul hurt. She expertly guides the reader through global power plays and players, and introduced me to connections between environmentalism, capitalism and the politics of hate that has cast its net over so much of the Western world. The cover promises “an essential blueprint for worldwide counterattack” (Owen Jones) but quite frankly, 185 thudding pages into it, the idea of hope felt absurd. Surely the only thing left to do was to walk towards the fire when the apocalypse arrived; the best possible outcome seemed to be that the end would be painless.
Then it arrives. Across lines of privilege and interest, reaching over countries and continents, Klein’s vision of not just refusal, but of resistance, can be captured in one simple act – the act of caring. With this principle at its core, she explains what resistance looks like in practice and politics, constructing a compelling counter-narrative with which to recover our world. A must-read if you sometimes look around and wonder what the hell we’re supposed to do now.
The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani
Between Donald Trump and Brexit the 2018 news cycle has consistently battered us with half-truths and whole lies. Algorithms have weakened our resistance to the appeal of information that confirms our own bias, and we have all lost sight of how knowledge is not always the same as facts. You might need a crash-course in post-modern theory in order to understand some sections of Kakutani’s book (I had to do some deep digging to access dusty twenty-year-old memories from university and there were still sections that I had to Google), but there are plenty of more accessible moments delivering hard truths about the elevation of subjectivity over factuality, science and common values. The book ends with no easy remedies but an insistence that cynicism and resignation be rejected because “without truth, democracy is hobbled”. It’s not an easy read, but if you’re up for a challenge, you won’t regret it.
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
You can’t say that! Stories have to be about White People is the title of one of my favourite essays from The Good Immigrant. Chetty’s methodical dismantling of the effect our children’s literature has on our children, black, brown and white, was stark reading as I reflected on over a decade in the classroom as an English teacher. A report published earlier in 2018 exposed how only 1% of children’s books published in 2017 had a main character from BAME backgrounds. In the context of this Chetty’s conclusions became even more compelling.
Other stand out essays include What we talk about when we talk about tokenism by Bim Adewunmi which cuts through the confusion of tokenism vs true inclusion. It is well worth a read if, like me, your understanding is like water in cupped palms, endlessly evading capture.
Another essay that has stayed with me is Musa Okwonga’s account of the exhaustion of existing as a black man in Britain, The Ungrateful Country. It oozes with quiet frustration and injustice, exposing how this country rejected a man who does everything “right’ and insists that he is fundamentally “wrong”.
The essays in this book are wide-ranging and, depending on your own point of reference, I imagine some may appeal more than others. But that’s the point really – this is a collection of essays from a collection of people. Of course there is no one voice, because there is no single experience of immigration. I loved it and will continue to return to it. Highly recommend.
This is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay
I inhaled this book in days but although This is Going to Hurt is definitely easier on the head than others in this list, it is almost certainly harder on the heart. It is impossible to read straight-faced and from page to page my disbelieving head shake melted into heartbreak and tears, which in turn were replaced with laughs-out-loud as Kay maintains a defiant sense of humour in the face of the brutal regime of a junior doctor in the NHS. It is quite, quite brilliant and if you needed another reason to defend the NHS and all who work within it, this book will do just that. If you somehow have not read it yet, I highly recommend it.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
This book is terrifying and I absolutely would not recommend you read it if sleep is a problem for you. Public health warnings aside, this exploration of the science behind shut-eye is also fascinating and has changed my attitude towards the Land of Nod. I used to treat getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night as a desirable but unlikely luxury. Of course I could see that I was calmer, happier, more patient and better able to concentrate when I was well-slept but I had no idea why this was, nor just how limiting not getting enough snooze-time was. I can’t possibly do the complexities of the science justice in a 100 word review so having exhausted my supply of synonyms for the word “sleep” I am instead going to leave you with one fact collected from the many in the book: did you know that the latin word for a seal is a Pinniped – derived from the word pinna which means fin, and ped which means foot. Literally, Fin-Foot.