I have never been very good at finishing things. I’m a serial project starter and tend to get very enthusiastic about new things; less so the continual slog of getting to the end of anything at all (apart from any one of my ill-planned cooking projects, but that’s because they all end in eating). At the start of 2015, I decided that this inability to complete things was getting out of hand and standing in the way of my personal, social and career development (it was). So I set myself a reading goal.
95 books by the end of the year.
I can’t remember exactly where this figure came from; I’ve a vague notion that it was something to do with George W. Bush, but by the time December came around I’d already decided to go for the full century. After all, what’s another 5 books when you’re already nearing a hundred?
The rules were simple: To be counted, a book had to be over 50 pages and had to be something worthwhile. There was no point cheating; as your high school English teacher no doubt told you, you’re only cheating yourself. So short books counted, comics did not, but collections did.
I started with no plan whatsoever; I read whatever came my way. I read some classics that I’d been thinking about attempting for ages (The Art of War; The Day of the Triffids), some more of the books from my favourite authors (The Autumn of the Patriarch, Americanah, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72) and some that I’d read a bit of, given up on, and rediscovered to glorious effect (Gravity’s Rainbow).
My favourite books this year, though, were ones I’d never heard of before, and ones that I received as gifts. In a conversation about great books at the start of the year, my wonderful friend Danielle of The Town Serif and Vocabulettering mentioned Geek Love by Katharine Dunn, and was horrified to hear that I hadn’t read it; a few days later, a copy landed on my (metaphorical) doormat. It was a few weeks before I got around to it, but once I did, I fell in love. The story of the travelling Binewski family and their circus of freaks, Geek Love is as dark as night. Al Binewski and his wife Crystal (Lil) create a family of physically abnormal children by feeding the pregnant Lil with increasingly toxic combinations of drugs and even radioactive materials, resulting in the conjoined twins Elly and Iphy, the telekinetic Chick, the hunchback albino dwarf Oly (the book’s narrator) and Arturo, who has fins and flippers instead of arms and legs. The physicality of the children becomes almost incidental as the Machiavellian Arturo creates a cult around himself and wields his power with unbelievable brutality; vengeance, madness, obsession and isolation take their toll on the family unit. Fucked up and brilliant. I loved it.
How deep and sticky is the darkness of childhood, how rigid the blades of infant evil, which is unadulterated, unrestrained by the convenient cushions of age and its civilizing anesthesia.
– Geek Love
My second favourite read of the year was one that I picked up in a Bangalore bookshop to give myself a mental break from the armfuls of Indian literature I’d just bought; I’m a sucker for a cleanly-designed dust jacket and I literally did judge this book by its cover. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara is the story of Dr. Norton Perina, who escapes a small town Indiana upbringing through science and then through anthropology, taking a place on an allegedly foolhardy mission to the fictional Polynesian island chain of U’ivu in order to contact a hitherto undiscovered tribe. The troupe not only finds the tribe but uncovers the apparent immortality of some of their number – and, tragically, the source of this power. As ever with the books that really get their talons into me, this one has a thoroughly unlikeable narrator with an at-best dubious moral and ethical standpoint – which, in this case, is muddied and confused through the prism of scientific ambition. Though Yanagihara is incredible at providing cliche-free descriptions of the exploration of new worlds, this book is about more than one man’s experience; it’s about the cruelty of colonization and the dangerous space between cultural relativity and self-serving ethical gymnastics. As a character study, it is flawless; the revelation at the end feels like it might have been shoehorned in at the request of the publisher, but it did put to bed any agnosticism the reader has about the real goings on within Perina’s life. I could have done without knowing, as I savour the ambiguity of these types of books, but the ending did really hammer home the horror of it all – and finding out that Perina was based on a real anthropologist made it even more affecting.
Gods are for stories and heavens and other realms; they are not to be seen by men. But when we encroach on their world, when we see what we are not meant to see, how can anything but disaster follow?
– The People in the Trees
To properly review every great book I read this year would be tedious, but I most definitely fell in love with the works of Hilary Mantel, Owen Jones and Jon Ronson to name just three. There are some incredible writers currently working in the UK, and the first books from Jenni Fagan, Colin Barrett and Alan Warner all kept me gripped this year. Michel Faber may not be a Brit by birth, but his body of work grows so intriguing that it’s impossible to ignore.
My love for certain writers only deepened. Sarah Waters, David Mitchell, Vladimir Nabakov; to lose yourself in their words is always a joy. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps the greatest storyteller of the 20th Century, is something of a god for me and I read five more of his books in the last 12 months. When an author passes away, you tend to ration out their works, preserving the feeling of reading something new for the first time, but this inevitably has its end; a dead writer’s work is finite, and you can only hold out for so long.
Joe Sacco and Brian K. Vaughan provided some much-needed artistic stimulation. While Sacco explores the theme of international politics and Vaughn explores the idea of what would happen to the only man left alive after a mysterious plague wipes out anything with a Y chromosome, both stimulate a cascade of considerations and thus are too good to miss.
I continued to fall out of love with some writers (I won’t say who. Okay, Haruki Murakami), and found myself dragging my way through some books that I just couldn’t connect with, as is always the way when you attempt to read anything and everything. Thankfully, the percentage of books that I didn’t enjoy was mercifully small. And yet, as a writer, there is always something to be learned from books you don’t get on with; perhaps its a style that you don’t want to emulate, or a trap you don’t want to fall into. Whatever it is, it is helpful to recognize. 2015 was the year in which I realised what type of things I don’t want to write.
And as my reading went on, my writing found itself keeping pace. I wrote more short stories than I’d ever written. I took a screenwriting course. I started work on radio monologues and non fiction books and stage plays. I was lucky enough to be selected as a mentee by the fantastic Kirsty Logan, who you’ve no doubt heard on the radio or read about, as she has had three awesome books out in the last two years, including her beautiful debut novel, The Gracekeepers, which came out to well-deserved fanfare in April. I applied to be mentored by Kirsty through the WoMentoring program, a professional peer mentoring scheme for women in the creative fields. Kirsty was generous enough to meet with me three times in the past year, and every time helped me to make a huge leap forward in the structuring, editing and understanding of my own work. Thanks to Kirsty I had the confidence to finish a 95,000-word first draft of a novel manuscript this year, and also to start sending more short stories to competitions and magazines. One of the first stories she helped me with will be published in a magazine in Spring 2016. If you weren’t lucky enough to get a copy of her limited-run, gorgeous short story collection A Portable Shelter, buy me a vegan cupcake and I might lend you mine.
It was also thanks to WoMentoring that I made contact with Peggy Riley, the wonderfully warm author of Amity and Sorrow. I hardly ever go back to books but I spent an afternoon in London with Peggy during which she generously chatted to me about her writing and editing processes and the realities of publishing a novel – over a glass of wine, of course. With that extra insight into the production of such a great story, I re-read Amity and Sorrow with fresh eyes and enjoyed it even more the second time.
Thank you, Kirsty, and Peggy – and thank you, WoMentoring!
I hadn’t expected it, but despite (or because of?) the fact that I spent more time with my nose between pages, 2015 was a productive and satisfying year for me. As well as travelling heaps, enjoying being in the same country as my best friends for the first time in six years and working my tush off, I completed some huge ghostwriting projects, took steps that I’d been terrified of making, and proved to myself that I can be disciplined if I really want to be. Just as reaching the end of a particularly tough workout makes you want to shove in an extra squat or two, as the end of the year rolled around, I felt the need to push myself one last time. In the middle of December, I accepted the inevitable; I’d have to once again pick up the 760-page meandering parable of a novel that I’d got 150 pages into then abandoned in 2014.
Gravity’s Rainbow is the magnum opus of American author Thomas Pynchon, and it’s a challenging, confusing work often compared to Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, neither of which I’ve had the confidence to attempt before. I’d tried to read Gravity’s Rainbow the previous year and had been clinging too strongly to the idea of understanding what was going on; I picked it up and started again this year with a more relaxed attitude and found myself loving the experience. This novel drags the reader through rooms that seem unconnected, skirting around the central narrative, taking in almost four hundred characters, some of whom appear once and then never again. Blank, stark writing and amazingly verbose sections intertwine to incredible effect. The themes of war, sex, death, corruption, paranoia, free will, destiny and insanity weave into and around each other, and a seemingly endless stream-of-consciousness section can give way to a traditionally structured dialogue with no explanation. I had to read about the novel extensively to properly approach it. It’s a horrible cliche, but you have to let the book wash over you – or, perhaps more accurately, you just have to immerse yourself in it, keeping your mouth just above water. When you do, the comedy, the psychology and the stunning aesthetics of it become clear. The world is uncovered. You see the whole universe.
And so my year ended with Gravity’s Rainbow. And so will this blog post.
This is part of the storm that sweeps now among them all, both sides of death. It is unpleasant.
– Gravity’s Rainbow
The list in full:
1. Walk the Walk – Gowan Calder and Jill Calder (Scottish Book Trust)
2. Be the First to Like This: New Scottish Poetry by Colin Waters
3. Diaries: The Python Years, 1969-1979 (Palin Diaries, #1) by Michael Palin
4. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
5. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
6. Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
7. Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan
8. Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez
9. Leaf Storm by Gabriel García Márquez
10. The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel García Márquez
11. The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
12. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
13. Young Skins: Stories by Colin Barrett
14. A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert
15. Journalism by Joe Sacco
16. Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
17. Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century by Hunter S. Thompson
18. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
19. The Night is Darkening Round Me (Little Black Classics, #63) by Emily Brontë
20. Under the Skin by Michel Faber
21. Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction (Hellboy, #1) by Mike Mignola
22. Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter
23. Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco
24. Palestine by Joe Sacco
25. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson
26. Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley*
27. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones
28. How Much Land Does A Man Need? by Leo Tolstoy
29. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez
30. In Evil Hour by Gabriel García Márquez
31. Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition Book One by Brian K. Vaughan
32. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
33. Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest
34. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
35. Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition Book Two by Brian K. Vaughan
36. Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition Book Three by Brian K. Vaughan
37. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
38. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
39. On Creativity by David Bohm
40. Sunset Song (A Scots Quair, #1) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
41. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
42. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
43. On Palestine by Noam Chomsky
44. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner
45. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
46. The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It by Owen Jones
47. Autofiction by Hitomi Kanehara
48. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
49. Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo
50. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Freakonomics, #1) by Steven D. Levitt
51. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
52. The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes, #5) by Arthur Conan Doyle
53. The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden
54. The Room by Hubert Selby Jr.
55. A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan
56. The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
57. The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan*
58. Barrel Fever by David Sedaris
59. The Art of War by Sun Tzu
60. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
61. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
62. The Outsider by Colin Wilson
63. Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk
64. Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt
65. The Human Stain (The American Trilogy, #3) by Philip Roth
66. Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek
67. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories by Tobias Wolff
68. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
69. The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson
70. Life Lessons From Nietzsche by John Armstrong
71. Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland
72. A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
73. Strangers by Taichi Yamada
74. Virtual Light (Bridge, #1) by William Gibson
75. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
76. The Lady In The Van by Alan Bennett
77. Crash by J.G. Ballard
78. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
79. On Writing by Charles Bukowski
80. Stories by Neil Gaiman
81. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
82. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
83. Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
84. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
85. Valmiki Ramayana: The Book Of Wilderness by Vālmīki
86. Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai
87. The Bhagavad Gita As It Is by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
88. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
89. The Temple-Goers by Aatish Taseer
90. Gora by Rabindranath Tagore
91. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
92. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
93. Petersburg Tales by Nikolai Gogol
94. Talking Heads by Alan Bennett
95. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
96. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
97. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
98. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
99. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
100. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon