2019. What a big year. Crikey – so much happened! There was
· A level results for youngest daughter and her going off for her first year at Liverpool University.
· Eldest daughter going for her year study abroad, in Houston Texas and seeing the sights from the Grand Canyon to Chicago.
· Renovation work in the house.
· Passing 20,000 followers on Instagram.
· Some great minibreaks in the Lake District and in Wales
· Visiting two book towns (Scotland’s Wigtown and Wales’ Hay on Wye)
· A sunny week in Devon, and
· Busy-busy at work.
It was also my most prolific reading year. The count was 86 books, which was a mixture of poetry, biography, non-fiction and fiction. I have to say though that the quality of the new fiction was not universally high. There was a lot that was good and OK, and not a lot that was exceptional. So much so, that my favourite books were re-reads and non-fiction. As I never give my book of the year award to a re-read, this time, for the first time ever… my book of the year is non-fiction!
My focus this year was meant to be South American literature but I kept getting horribly distracted. I also tried two readalongs – The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Underland by Robert Macfarlane – but found I am singularly unfitted to do what I am told when I am told to do it. In 2020 I am not going to set myself such specific targets. I’m just going to enjoy my reading and read as widely as possible.
The South American books I read were:
· Clarice Lispector – The Passion According to GH
· The Cubs and other stories – Mario Varga Llosa
· Cynthia McLeod – The Cost of Sugar
· Pablo Neruda – Collected Poetry
· Luisa Sauma – Flesh Bone Water
· Roberto Bolano – By Night in Chile
Whilst there was a great flavour to these books, and they were definitely wonderfully different from standard Western and European literature, this was nothing like my aim to read one author from each South American country. But I did also read books by authors from the Dominican Republic, Japan, Ireland, Russia, Australia, the USA, Austria, Scotland, Wales, Spain, Jamaica, England, Italy, Canada, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Greece, New Zealand and France. So, nineteen different countries. Reasonably diverse.
And for the rest I discovered lots of wonderful authors I’ve never read before, and a fair few brilliant books. I read five Robert Macfarlanes and seven Agatha Christies. Macfarlane particularly was a real find. It’s hard to pin him down to a genre, but I guess it’s broadly nature writing, with an environmental bent, but also layering in characters, anecdotes, history, geography, literature and so much more. His style is easy to read, but along the way you learn so much.
Deciding my favourite read was DIFFICULT! To make it a little easier to explain I have broken down my reading to four categories – new fiction, rereads, poetry and non-fiction. I’ll start with new fiction…
New works of fiction
My top ten were from nine different countries – Brazil, Chile, Japan, Russia, Norway, England, Czechoslovakia, Greece and USA (2). I'll do a separate post reviewing each of them. They were:
1. Notes from Underground (Fyedor Dostoyevsky)
2. The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
3. Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka)
4. Kristin Lavrensdatter (Sigrid Undset)
5. Zorba the Greek (Nikos Kazantzakis)
6. Essays in Idleness (Yoshida Kenko)
7. The Gustav Sonata (Rose Tremain)
8. By Night in Chile (Roberto Bolano)
9. The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon)
10. The Passion According to GH (Clarice Lispector)
I also had nearly twenty re-reads this year. My top ten were all amazing classics:
1. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
2. Villette (Charlotte Bronte)
3. Kim (Rudyard Kipling)
4. Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)
5. The Idiot (Fyedor Dostoyevsky)
6. Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery)
7. Moby Dick (Herman Melville)
8. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
9. Kidnapped (Robert Louis Stevenson)
10. Confessions (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
My favourite poetry collection was Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda. Reading it, it was as if Neruda was using every word and piece of imagery for the first time, disinterring it from some smouldering corner, cleaning and polishing until it shone. Breath-taking stuff.
Also to be mentioned in dispatches, and recommended of course, are:
· Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
· The poetry of Judith Wright
· Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map his way to Zion
· The poetry of Toon Tellegen
Which leads me to my favourite non-fiction. It was a short field, but so very strong. As was the case last year, I have had to toss a coin to decide between the top two. So, counting down:
In third place was:
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X/Alex Haley.
Whilst this is recognised as an autobiography, it was actually ghost written by the author of Roots, Alex Haley, based on interviews between Haley and Malcolm X. It is surprising, earthy, educational, honest and eye-opening.
In second place was:
Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
Man leaves society to go and live in a hut in the woods for a couple of years, and writes down his thoughts. Simply wonderful. A must read and a life changing book. Some dull and preachy moments but so many nuggets of golden wisdom, insight and so many great quotes. Lots to think about. When I finished it I almost started reading it again straight away.
And in first place, and therefore My Book of 2019, was…
Underland by Robert Macfarlane
In a world were exploration has been done, Macfarlane finds the alien within our landscapes and a science unbeknownst to us, he brings awe and shock and unexpected beauty into our living rooms, along with new thoughts, new places, new people. And with such understated poetry and perfect expression. I don't think I've loved a book so much that I've read so slowly, or read a book this slowly that I've loved so much. I just wanted to savour every word. I can't recommend this book highly enough.
All in all an amazing year of reading. Do comment below what your favourite book of the year was.
And in case you are interested, here are my books of the year from when I first started keeping records:
1982 Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien, England
1983 Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger, USA
1984 To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, USA
1985 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, USA
1986 Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, France
1987 Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy,England
1988 A Room with a View, EM Forster, England
1989 Middlemarch, George Eliot, England
1990 Villette, Charlotte Bronte, England
1991 All Quiet on the Western Front, EM Remarque, Germany
1992 The Scarlet and the Black, Stendahl, France
1993 Crime and Punishment, Fyedor Dostoyevsky, Russia
1994 As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Laurie Lee, England
1995 Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, Russia
1996 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte, England
1997 Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, France
1998 Kim, Rudyard Kipling, England
1999 The Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournieres, France
2000 Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan, France
2001 Catch 22, Joseph Heller, USA
2002 The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, USA
2003 A Secret History, Donna Tartt, USA
2004 David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, England
2005 Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, England
2006 A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, USA
2007 White Teeth, Zadie Smith, England
2008 The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, Australia
2009 A Fraction of the whole, Steve Toltz, Australia
2010 Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, England
2011 Any human heart, William Boyd, England
2012 The Road, Cormac McCarthy, USA
2013 We, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Russia
2014 The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, USA
2015 Quicksand, Steve Toltz, Australia
2016 Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbons, Scotland
2017 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey, USA
2018 Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, USA
2019 Underland, Robert Macfarlane, England