I love my little ritual of writing this blog, as it gives me a way to look over the year in full. Coffee, truffles (Christmas present), memories. I read a book title and remember who lent it to me, or where I read it, or what a friend responded when I told them that I loved or hated it. Here's the book that I read walking on the streets of Toronto in July; here's the book I read to my partner in the bath, tears running down my face; here are the four books I borrowed from my friend's shelves while staying at her place, catsitting for her three feline friends. The gifts, the self-purchases, the library books. The long flights and early mornings and the blissful afternoons in the sun.
In a lot of ways, this year has been about balance. Balancing my desperation to stay on top of the news and politics cycle with my desire to chuck the entire world off a cliff and run away to a mountaintop somewhere. Balancing my innate desire to say yes to anything and everything with my need to actually complete something and get somewhere in my career. And balancing my reading list—because, as I found out last year to my horror and dismay, it was horrendously biased towards men.
I consider myself someone who reads a lot of women, and someone who champions female writing. And yet when I was writing last year's end-of-year blog I realised that 2016's reading list was anything but balanced. I read 75 men to 25 women, and the realisation truly unsettled me. What did this say about my inherent biases? And what about all the incredible female writing I must have been missing, just because for some reason I was tending towards the men?
When starting out this year's reading challenge, then, I resolved to correct that disgraceful imbalance.
This, of course, did change my reading selections, though not my favoured genres or the quality of the year's reading overall (if anything, it dragged it up (#notallmalewriters)). While the canon of literary fiction is ludicrously gender-biased, modern and contemporary fiction is full of incredible female writers, and indeed all of the writers who I consider to have been breaking boundaries and exploring form as well as story have been women (Hanya Yanagihara, Eimear McBride, Katharine Dunn's Geek Love (old, I know, but new to me)).
At the last minute, when choosing my final read of the year, I abandoned an exact gender split for the opportunity to read one of my Christmas presents, a book that I've been waiting to get for months now. The final book was To Be a Machine by Mark O'Connell and this left me with a not-quite perfect gender spread. The final count was this:
Female writers: 72
Male writers: 74
Trans / non-binary writers: 4
As my own understanding of trans issues grows and matures (and as more and more trans authors find publishing deals), I'd like to get a more even spread along the gender spectrum—but as an improvement on last year's horrorshow, I'm happy with it.
As you might notice from those numbers, I also overshot my own reading challenge this year by a fair way. I was only aiming for 100 books, but several transatlantic flights, lots of train journeys and an entire month at the wonderful Cove Park (I was awarded their Emerging Writer residency this year and had the most incredible productive and glorious September) during which I wrote in the mornings and read in the afternoons meant that by October I was already over my designated 100, and by the start of December I'd resolved to aim for the shiny 150. Why not?
The rules, as ever, were simple. To be counted, a book had to be over 50 pages and had to be something worthwhile. YA counts, and longer kids books do too. So do poetry collections, and collected volumes of comics. Individual comic issues do not.
The single contentious title on this list is probably The Goldblum Variations by the fantastic Helen McClory (published via the similarly wonderful 404 Ink), and the potential issue is that this is strictly a chapbook rather than a full book. However, it's such a pure joy and such a brilliant exploration of the beautiful Goldblum multiverse that I couldn't not include it. Also, god damn, it's on Goodreads so it counts.
To the favourites, then.
Poetry book of the year was definitely The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate by Rachel McCrum, a storming collection that rattles through your very bones and enflames all your sensibilities. Though it didn't come out this year, I absolutely loved This Changes Things by Claire Askew (whose debut novel will grace us next summer). I've been having a bit of a poetry renaissance in 2017, thanks in large part to the generosity of Dave Coates of DavePoems fame, who has taken me by the hand and shepherded me through the intense and brilliant world of contemporary poetry. Thanks to Dave I also got my hands on In These Days of Prohibition by Caroline Bird and The Red and Yellow Nothing by Jay Bernard, both of which blew my tiny little mind and changed my understanding of how poetry could tackle subjects. The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy was also a total treat.
And when they retired me,
I had my wine from the silent vines,
and I’d known love,
and I’d saved some money –
but I could not fly and I made no
- The Human Bee, Carol Ann Duffy
Almost unbelievably, I'd never even heard of SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist text written in the 60s, shortly before the author attempted to murder Andy Warhol. If you read this book as a straightforward and entirely true outlining of the author's desires, then she's a maniac. If you read it as satire, it is a searing indictment of the 60s-era patriarchy, and it is, on almost every page, completely hilarious. I bought this as a birthday present to myself after finding it at the gorgeous Fruitmarket Gallery bookshop, and my god, I'm glad I did.
I'd be remiss if I got through this whole blog without mentioning The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which is not just the most incredible book I read this year, but is one of the most hilarious and challenging books I've read in the last decade. Telling the story of a black man who wants to bring slavery back to the small black community he lives in, The Sellout is laugh-out-loud funny and agonisingly pointed in so many places because it pushes you (especially as a white reader) so far out of your comfort zone that you read the novel in a state of perpetual shock. Full of narrative anarchy and an eyewateringly sharp satire of post-racial politics, it might actually be a work of genius.
Other fiction highlights of the year include the (justifiably) wildly popular The Power by Naomi Alderman, which has spread like a particularly enjoyable plague over the literary scene, mostly because it takes a fantastically inventive and timely premise and carries it beautifully to its logical conclusion. I also rounded out the year on a major high with Jan Carson's Children's Children, a short story collection that's an original as it is unputdownable. Floater might be one of the best short stories I've ever read, and exactly the sort of tale that leaves me thinking "God, why didn't I think of that?" (Another fiction that caused me to think that this year was the movie Tusk. Proceed with caution there).
Non-fiction highlights have included The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which is an exploration of the origins of the most commonly used immortal cell line in history. The HeLa cells were the first human cells to be successfully cloned in a lab, and the first grown in a lab to be naturally "immortal"; that is to say they did not die after a certain number of cell divisions. As is so often the case, there was a long-unnamed working class black woman at the centre of this story; Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were taken from her without her knowledge or consent. This book attempts to give voice to Henrietta Lacks and her family as well as discussing the ethics of the case and the lasting medical impact which the cell line has had. I thought Skloot did this with skill and grace; not an easy combo when tackling such loaded issues.
I also burned through Colonialism and Neocolonialism by personal favourite Jean-Paul Sartre. Unlike most of his other books that I've read, most of which tackle firmly existentialist themes, this is a collection of political essays and though they're mainly written in reference to the French occupation of Algeria, they're almost unbelievably relevant to the global political scene today.
My favourite non-fiction book, however, was The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography by the ever incredible Angela Carter (who, it must be said, I came to very late in the day). Having read a fair bit of de Sade in the last couple of years (including 120 Days of Sodom, which made me say out loud to a coach full of strangers "Jesus, will you stop eating each other's shit?"), I was fascinated to read Carter's feminist re-appraisal of his work and specifically of the sexual agency of his female characters. Though it was written in the late 70s this book is fresh as a daisy, and the sexual politics are far more open than we're used to even now (or perhaps especially now *eyes US domestic policy*). An absolute must-read.
I've also been lucky enough to read some incredible WIP / soon-to-be-published novels from friends this year, including Kirsty Logan's gorgeous and lush follow up to The Gracekeepers, entitled The Gloaming (out in 2018) and Ryan Vance's WIP, which may not yet have found its final title, making me reluctant to post it in case he changes his mind. However, it's a brilliant speculative fiction novel that's tight and funny and Ryan Vance all over. Keep your eyes peeled for that one.
I also loved Katrina Palmer's conceptual End Matter, but I wrote all about that for Helen McClory's The Unsung Letter, so you can read about it there.
Foy was no Tree of Knowledge. At most he was a Bush of Opinion.
... you have to ask yourself two questions: Who am I? And how may I become myself?
- The Sellout, Paul Beatty
Without a doubt, the biggest disappointment of the year was The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides, who I LOVE, and who has produced two almost flawless novels before this one, which was a tediously boring slog and which, I admit, I didn't even read the end of. Thats how little I cared about those characters. Jeffrey, please. Please.
I also read We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and absolutely hated it, which is all the effort I'm willing to expend talking about that.
But how do you read so many books?
I hear this a lot, as I'm sure you do if you constantly tell people how many books you've read this year in an effort to have them respond with "But how do you read so many books?" The truth is that a whole bunch of people read loads more, and many of us have the luxury of time, because we write for a living and reading is part of the job. Not many of us have time to munch through 100 or more books per year, and to claim otherwise would be disingenuous.
However, almost of all of us could make more time for reading if we really wanted to—and by just making a few tiny adjustments to our routines. Of course, if you want to make a major change, I'm always up for that, so let's start with the huge ones first.
1. Throw away your TV
I haven't had a TV since 2010, and I honestly wouldn't go back. That's not to say that it's not totally joyous when you cat-sit for a mate who has a giant telly and a Netflix account and you end up watching all three first series of Red Dwarf in a weekend, but as you'll know if you're forced to sit with family over the Christmas period, most of what's on terrestrial telly nowadays is total dogshit designed to fritter away the hours and discourage people from actually engaging with anything real. You can still get telly on your laptop for when you're desperate, but donating your TV to a needy friend will change what you do with your spare time—and it'll change the look of your entire house when you're living room isn't entirely centred around a dead-eyed black rectangle that looms over everything and everyone in its vision. Not that I've an opinion on this at all.
2. Turn off your phone
This year, inspired by Cathy Rentzenbrink's A Manual for Heartache, we made our bedroom a phone-free zone. We bought a real alarm clock (no issues yet) and instead of turning over to the uncanny light of our screens when we wake up, we now turn over and cuddle, which is much better for everyone concerned. We also read when we're in bed instead of stressing ourselves out with the digital world, reacting to things we don't need to engage with about people whose lives have absolutely no effect on ours.
This also means we're not so quick to reach for the phones when we do venture out into the rest of the flat. At breakfast, I'm more likely to pick up a book and relax over sourdough toast and the first coffee of the day, rather than finding myself raging angry about the latest political debacle or what some random troll has said on Twitter. That now waits for 9am at least.
3. Make the most of travelling / waiting time
We spend loads of time on buses, in cars*, on trains, in planes, and waiting around for things to start happening. We tend to spend this time flicking through magazines designed to make us buy things or hate ourselves, or trawling listlessly through our social media timelines looking for something to briefly burst the tedium of sitting and waiting. Couldn't we read a few pages of something? Finish that novel we were working on? Take in a few poems from a collection? It all adds up. I love long-haul flights these days because I put on my leggings and my big socks and tuck myself in to read for several glorious uninterrupted hours and nobody, NOBODY can bother me.
*Don't do this if you're driving. Although—audiobooks?
4. Be that dickhead who reads while they walk
I'm this dickhead. And you know what? I get to where I'm going without bumping into anyone, and I'm less stressed out on the way. And I read a ton of books. So there.
And with that, here's goodbye to 2017, which has been an absolute shitter of a year in almost every possible way, and here's to a 2018 full of political revolutions and personal improvements and good books and great movies and bread that you make yourself. Because, after the last two years, we all deserve it.
My 2017 reading list in full:
1. Reality, Reality by Jackie Jay
2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
3. The Lifted Veil by George Eliot
4. The Stepsister by R. L. Stine
5. The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
6. The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
7. Flesh of the Peach by Helen McClory
8. In the House of the Interpreter by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
9. Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin
10. Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
11. Human Acts by Han Kang
12. Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics by Richard Seymour
13. Corbyn: Against All Odds by Richard Seymour
14. The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet
15. Consciousness and the Novel by David Lodge
16. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Jack Kirby
17. Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood
18. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
19. Ice Cream by Helen Dunmore
20. Nasty Women by 404 Ink
21. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
22. Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
23. The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
24. Uninvited by Peter Mortimer
25. Tiger Tiger (The X-Files) by Les Martin
26. Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo
27. Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker
28. Becoming Unbecoming by Una
29. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
30. The Good Dark by Ryan Van Winkle
31. Mythologies by Roland Barthes
32. Teacher's Pet by Richie Tankersley Cusick
33. The Daughter of Lady Macbeth by Ajay Close
34. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
35. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
36. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
37. Dream Date by Sinclair Smith
38. The Shaking Woman by Siri Hustvedt
39. The Gender Garden by Transgender Lives Project
40. The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry
41. Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis
42. Selected Poems by Don Paterson
43. Ruby by Cynthia Bond
44. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes
45. Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
46. The Cheater by R. L. Stine
47. Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce
48. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
49. The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney
50. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
51. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
52. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
53. The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter
54. Myths of the Near Future by J. G. Ballard
55. Blue is the Warmest Colour by Julie March
56. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
57. Sex Criminals 1 by Matt Fraction
58. Sex Criminals 2 by Matt Fraction
59. The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
60. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
61. The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru
62. Undying: A Love Story by Michael Faber
63. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
64. Telling Tales by Patience Agbabi
65. This Changes Things by Claire Askew
66. The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy
67. Fiere by Jackie Kay
68. Spells on Wheels 1 by Kate Leth
69. Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy by Chitra Ramaswamy
70. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
71. Paper Girls Vol. 3 by Brain K. Vaughn
72. The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate by Rachel McCrum
73. Changeling by Clare Pollard
74. The Equestrienne by Ursula Kovalyk
75. Pigeon by Alys Conran
76. Rushing to Paradise by J. G. Ballard
77. Mingulay: An Island and its People by Ben Buxton
78. End Matter by Katrina Palmer
79. Colonialism and Neocolonialism by Jean-Paul Sartre
80. City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
81. The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink
82. Hallaig and Other Poems by Sorley Maclean
83. A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink
84. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
85. Until Further Notice I Am Alive by Tom Lubbock
86. So Happy It Hurts by Annaliese Mackintosh
87. Tales from Barra by Roger Hutchinson
88. The Vatersay Raiders by Ben Buxton
89. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
90. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
91. The Power by Naomi Alderman
92. The Moira Monologues by Alan Bissett
93. Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen
94. McGrotty and Ludmilla by Alasdair Gray
95. Old Skye Tales by William Mackenzie
96. Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta
97. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
98. Western Isles Folk Tales by Ian Stephen
99. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
100. Isles of the West by Ian Mitchell
101. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
102. Optimism Over Despair by Noam Chomsky
103. Bastard Out Of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
104. Rat Queens Vol 1 by Kurtis J, Wiebe
105. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
106. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
107. The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
108. 6 N the Morning by Dandi Abe
109. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
110. Collected Poems by Philip Larkin
111. Slade House by David Mitchell
112. Hunger by Roxane Gay
113. On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky
114. Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation by Matt Myers
115. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
116. How to be a Craftivist by Sarah Corbett
117. Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky
118. Fourth Person Singular by Nuar Alsadir
119. Who Seemed Alice and Altogether Real by Padraig Regan
120. The Red and Yellow Nothing by Jay Bernard
121. Rabbit and Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits by Julian Gough
121. Rabbit and Bear: The Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough
123. The Role of the Trade Unions by James Prior
124. SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
125. Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge
126. A New Map of Wonders by Caspar Henderson
127. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
128. The Bird Room by Chris Killen
129. Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye by Roger Hutchinson
130. In These Days of Prohibition by Caroline Bird
131. Sunshine by Melissa Lee-Houghton
132. Seven Tales of Sex and Death by Patricia Duncker
133. At Hajj by Amaan Hyder
134. Precious by Sapphire
135. The Love of Good Women by Isabel Millar
136. McGlue by Otessa Moshfegh
137. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
138. Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky
139. The Passion by Jeanette Winterston
140. Sula by Toni Morrisson
141. Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy
142. The Goldblum Variations by Helen McClory
143. Witches, Sluts, Feminists by Kirsten J. Sollee
144. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
145. Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller
146. All My Sons by Arthur Miller
147. #afterwords by Inua Ellams
148. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
149. Children's Children by Jan Carson
150. To Be a Machine by Mark O'Connell