2019 in 50 Books

Better late than never, right?

The COVID19 changes to my work plans has given me more time to read and write but way less time to concentrate on doing either of those. So I thought I might as well use the chance to look at the books I read last year and see what I particularly enjoyed!

Although I read a lot, I can rarely remember plot. I often remember characters, and I remember whether I liked or didn’t like something. So, to be true to the reality of this I’ve included only a short review as I wrote it on my Instagram last year (unless I really loved it and insist you should read it).

Here we go. Hope you enjoy!

1 – Ken Liu: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories: Marvellous fantastical short stories.

2 – Antoine de Saint-Exupery: The Little Prince: Always beautiful.

3 – Jacqui L’Ange: The Seed Thief: Magical! Full of lore and passion and plants and food and adventure. Had me hungry and lusting for travel. I also love books that make you want to learn about something else and this book had me googling plants and looking up gods and goddesses. Loved it!

4 – Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire: I haven’t read a book in a single sitting for ages. Started this at 10pm last night and couldn’t stop reading. Spectacular and devastating.

5 – Alain de Botton: The Course of Love: Loved this and feel grateful for its lessons. Anyone who is or has been in a relationship should read it.

6 – Penguin Moderns: Albert Camus: Create Dangerously: Very cool essays from Camus.

7 – Nic Sheff: Tweak: I watched the film ‘Beautiful Boy’ last week and it was so haunting and sad. This is the other memoir that the film is based on. It’s visceral and dark but ultimately hopeful.

8 – Sarah Knight: The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k: A few useful things but overall a bit smarmy and self indulgent I thought.

9 – Binyavanga Wainana: One Day I Will Write About This Place: Set in Kenya but really set in the writer. A memoir about loving a difficult complicated country, always wanting it to do better – to optimize the potential that’s so obvious to you. I could relate. At times very funny and at times very sad. Wainana passed away last year – a huge loss for the literary community.

10 – Jeanette Winterson: Oranges are not the Only Fruit: The fictional account of a childhood that needed surviving. Looking forward to reading the memoir soon.

11 – Claire Dederer: Poser: The memoir of ten years of yoga practice and all the flexibility of heart and mind that comes with it. Made me want to visit the coastline near Seattle, write more, and do more yoga that is less about the abs and hot pants and more about the heart.

12 – Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal: This was incredible. Beautiful writing that I feel grateful to have read. ‘Creativity is on the side of health — it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.’ This memoir is so sad and wonderful and emotional. She writes with a clarity of voice and prose that is astounding.

13 – David Sedaris: Naked: Some of this I loved and laughed out loud, some I reflected on how much one person can notice, others I was repulsed at how humour still gets away with so much prejudice, and other parts I felt sad, for the unsaid, the hidden.

14 – A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven: The story is gripping right from the beginning, and then the characters grip you too. Very dark and strange. South Africa appears in the story too – villages and game farms and highjacking (is this what the outside thinks is here?) Really enjoyed the writing.

15 – Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the body: Picked this up on a whim at Kalk Bay Books and it is lovely. Thoughtful, beautifully written essays on various parts of the body. Appendix was my favorite I think, and then nose.

16 – Penguin Moderns: Audre Lorde: The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House: Amazing amazing amazing. 🙌🙌🙌🙌🙌🙌👏👏👏👏👏👏💪💪💪💪💪

17 – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens: Laughed out loud a lot. Particularly loved the four hoursemen.

18 – Sara-Jayne King: Killing Karoline: Hard reading. Brave writing.

19 – June Eric-Udorie: Can We All Be Feminists? Fresh writing, lots of new and young voices. (Oh, and obvs the answer is – YES! Please and thank you).

20 – Kirsten Miller: The Hum of the Sun: A story of family and love and understanding. At times sparse and other times lyrical. A lovely read.

21 – Sarah Winman: Tin Man: So beautiful. A good cry at the end.

22 – Margaret Atwood: The Penelopiad.  Just finished her MasterClass and it was nice to hear this in her voice and dry humour.

23 – Amy Chua: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. This was great! I laughed so much. So much compassion and gratitude for the moms out there just doing what they believe is right. 

24 – Tessa Hadley: The Past: Wonderful and immersive. Thick rich characters.

25 – Lauren Groff: Fates and Furies: Loved this book. Such a fun use of form and style. The characters were rich and captivating and complex. Will think of Lotto and Mathilde often.

26 – Stephen Pinker, Matt Ridley, Alain de Botton, Malcolm Gladwell: Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead? Transcript of the Munk Debate. Pleasing combo – only Gladwell commented on the fact that no women were involved. Think it would have covered different ground if there had been.

27 – Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange: An interesting and creepy plot, but a bit drawn out and a few too many architectural references to be my cup of tea.

28 – Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath: Loved this. Talented talented writer making complex connections so simple.

29 – Naomi Alderman: Disobedience: I found it strange, interesting, a little sad. Peculiar self-destructive characters that felt very real.

30 – Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go: I loved this story when I saw the film a few years ago, and it was still wonderful to read all these years later

31 – Albert Camus: The Stranger (L’etranger): It is a strange book but somehow compelling. You can’t quite believe it’s all happening to him – how life seems to happen to him rather than him living. Odd.

32 – Esther Perel: The State of Affairs: I could read Esther Perel every day. She’s so frank and honest and practical. A powerful look at what infidelity says about our ideas of fidelity, of love, of power in relationships. Highly recommend!

33 – Nicole Dennis-Benn: Here Comes the Sun: Absolutely loved this. Powerful characters, powerful plot. A reflection on destiny and free will.

34 – Dominique Botha: False River: Beautiful lyrical writing. Like being in a time machine in some parts. All the prizes were very well deserved.

35 – Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion: Wolfed this down. Loved it.

36 – Greta Thunberg: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference: A collection of her speeches from the last six months. Amazing inspiring climate activist. Key message – we have to start now, stop making excuses, listen to the science, and reduce our carbon. 💪

37 – Margaret Atwood: The Testaments: So great to be back in the story in the written form. Pacy, thrilling, clever 👌

38 – Makhosana Xaba: Running and Other Stories: Running was so powerful.

39 – Tara Westover: Educated: Breathtaking. Couldn’t put it down.

40 – Judy Klipin: Recover from Burnout: Such useful ideas, tips, exercises. Extremely valuable read 💪

41 – Matthew Walker: Why We Sleep. The irony of finishing this book while sleep deprived on a red-eye flight is not lost on me. Very interesting read. Key message: sleep as much of you can and your life, health, and productivity will all improve

42 – Sally Rooney: Normal People: Adored this. Started it yesterday on my lunch break and read til the wee hours last night and finished it tonight. So many true things expressed so simply. And the author was born in 1991, which makes me feel very inspired.

43 – Lisa Taddeo: Three Women: Marvellous. True life told so beautifully. So much to think about sex and power and love and gender. Will have to come back and reread. 👌👌

44 – Roxane Gay: Not That Bad: This collection was incredible, extremely difficult to read, and so full of truth.

45 – Louis Sachar: Holes: A young adult book I started reading with some kids I read to. Not what I normally read but I enjoyed it, especially the friendship between the boys.

46 – Amy Heydenrych: Shame On You: Pacey thriller that was quick to read and had a great ending!

47 – Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls: The story of the women in the Iliad and what they endured. In telling a story about women Barker has also told a story about men and their dangerous pride.

48 – Penguin Moderns: Anais Nin: The Veiled Woman: Saucy short stories 👌

49 – Malcolm Gladwell: What the Dog Saw: I love listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcasts and now that I’ve heard him so much I hear him when I read him. It imbues his books with a childlike enthusiasm for the world. He always reminds listeners/readers to be more curious and to ask more questions. Enjoyed this a lot, especially the piece about Late Bloomers (there is still time everyone!)

50 – T.S. Eliot: Points of View: T.S. Eliot on literary criticism, poetry, and other poets. Most of it written before 1935. I thought the bits on literary criticism were still relevant today.

Short Story 5: Alice Munro – Train

In 2013 my mom’s former London flatmate came to visit her in Ballito. She brought my sister and I each a book. I can’t remember what I got, but somehow my sister’s copy of Alice Munro’s Dear Life ended up in my possession.

Munro is a Canadian short story writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. She has written a fantastic number of stories and won several awards for them. She has even been featured in Canadian currency since 2014. Yet, the collection Dear Life has sat on my shelf since 2013, unread, mostly because I have a horrific book buying addiction and also because we were read one of her stories in one of my Creative Writing classes, supposed to be wowed by it, and I was like … wait, nothing happened in that story.

Aah, says the internet, that is the point. Her stories are more like the Russian style, where the plot is secondary and the minor shifts in the character(s) are what we’re supposed to be paying attention to. A lot like real life.

So the other day in my quest to be more literary and read more short stories I picked it up again, and randomly selected a story – Train. Some of my favourite memories of travelling are on trains – leaving Venice singing Kings of Leon Sex on Fire at the top of my lungs thinking there was no one else in my carriage only to receive a round of applause from down the carriage when I was done, taking the train from Vermont to New York listening to the incredible S-Town on my first solo trip to America, watching the fields pass by on the trains I took between Paris and Marnay-Sur-Seine last year, and also that time I looked over at my husband before he was my husband on a train in Turkey thinking ‘shit, I’m so in love with that guy. I’m going to have to ask him to marry me.’

Trains are infinitely better than other modes of transport because they give you a clear view of the outside world at eye-level. You’re not underground in the dark like the subway or the tube, you don’t have to concentrate on driving, you’re not too high up to see people walking in fields, preening their gardens, or waiting, hand in hand, on a platform. Trains allow you to watch people and a long train ride allows you to watch yourself.

So I picked up Dear Life and turned to page 175.

First line: This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve.

The first line of this story could encapsulate the whole story. It tells us of a man, Jackson, who should be staying on his train to head into a station where we assume someone is waiting for him. Instead, Jackson decides to jump off, and after that, his life is changed forever.

He lands safely and makes his way across a field until he’s spotted by Belle, a local landowner. Belle and Jackson strike up a friendship, beginning with him doing some work on her house, and eventually staying there long term. Like before, not much happened in the plot, which covered several years, but a lot changes in Jackson.

Late in the story, when he is no longer living with Belle, he hears the voice of someone he used to love and he doesn’t get up to see her. Instead, he listens to what she’s asking, studying the voice and its impact on him. It’s enough for him to hear it. He doesn’t want to go back into that old life or have to explain the choices he made or the person he is. He just hears it, and in his hearing, the reader realises how much about him has changed.

The subtle story has some perfect lines, for example:

Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window. What are you doing here? Where are you going? A sense of being watched by the things you didn’t know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.

This section encapsulates the beauty of being in a train. Of having the ability to move through a scene which seems silent and perfect, and not ever knowing what the reality of that is like. It allows you to pour yourself into the scenery, fill it with your own emotional noise and feeling, and to still your mind a little.

This short story was like that too.

Short Story 4: Ken Liu – The Paper Menagerie

In September last year, I saw Ken Liu talk at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. He was serious, dressed in an overcoat (I might be projecting this), and his responses to the host were always long and detailed, but fascinating.

It was clear that this was a writer who thought a lot about a lot of things. It wasn’t just that he thought, it was that you could feel the emotion connected to the story he was telling, and to his writing. I can’t remember if he read a section from the Paper Menagerie, or just described it, but the imagery was vivid. It seemed like he was a writer who felt deeply, and someone who would definitely be worth reading.

After hearing his talk I went out to buy the collection, but on that day it had been sold out at the Fugard. A month later, I got a book voucher for my favourite bookstore, The Book Lounge, as part of my bachelorette gifts, and I knew exactly what I was going to buy.

The collection of short stories is called The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. It has a beautiful cover, and the list of accolades that Liu has accrued and achieved is detailed on the back and is extremely impressive, and when I searched for some podcasts featuring him I learned that he also writes Star Wars stories. He is a busy man, and he is extremely talented.

I picked up the collection one evening during the holidays while my husband was ill, and read him The Paper Menagerie. Filled with feeling and depth it is a truly magical story, one that will leave you thinking about it for weeks to come. You can read the whole story here, but I’d really recommend going and buying the collection because the other stories in it are incredible too.

First Line: One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing.

The story describes a child’s relationship with his parents as he grows up in America in a multiracial family. He struggles to make friends, and so his mom crafts him a menagerie made of origami and breathes life into it. The creatures come alive and are his companions in a world that is not always easy to live in. His father is American, and his mom is Chinese. He describes her being picked by his dad from a catalogue, but the real story is far more complicated.

As he grows older, his relationship with his mother grows fraught, as he longs for a ‘normal’ American mother who speaks with him in English. He wants more than anything to fit in, and this comes at a high cost. His father tries to heal the relationship but is not successful. One day in an argument his mother responds that when she says love in English, she feels it in her mouth, but when she says it in Chinese she feels it in her heart. I think we all know the difference between saying and feeling love, and this just puts it so beautifully.

The story is so beautiful, vivid, and full of emotion. He uses images to connect times and spaces so skillfully. I had to pause at some points in order to be able to carry on because I was overwhelmed by the emotion of the character. It is a story that gets to the heart of love and the way we treat those closest to us, the easiest people to bully and belittle, but also the people who give us the most love, even when it seems we don’t deserve it.

I have been slowly reading through the rest of the collection, not because the stories are dense or difficult, but because the sheer force of feelings of each story means you need to sit a while between them. Sometimes days.

But you will want to pick them up again. Because they are powerful stories, and powerful stories feed you, even when they are sad. Perhaps especially so.

What would a world where women weren’t harassed look like?

This morning I finished reading Jessica Valenti’s Memoir Sex Object. The book is a collection of personal reflections on topics such as street harassment, abortion, drug use, sex, and child raising. Throughout, it explores the way that the world treats women, casting them as objects for men’s comment, pleasure, and enjoyment. It also explores the very powerful physical, psychological, and political effects this categorisation has. I found the book painful and difficult to read, not because of the writing but because of the content. Despite this difficulty, the book is important in that it raises important questions that we need to consider.

Valenti considers what it means for her to be raising a daughter in this world and the qualities that she would like her daughter to have. She wants her daughter to be brave, to still be the girl who wants the best part in the play when she’s older, and most of all she wants her not to have to endure the constant harassment, abuse, and assault that most women are exposed to on a daily basis. She wonders what it might be like if that was not the world that existed, and what women would believe about their own potential if we had the space to live our lives un-objectified.

It’s a powerful question that bears reflecting on in South Africa, where street harassment, domestic violence, sexual violence, abuse, and gender discrimination remain the norm. Sure, we have the laws that say it’s not allowed, and the Constitution says we all have the right to feel and be safe, but for most of us, those are just pieces of paper with good intentions.

Last year I spent three months out of the country on writing residencies. It was an amazing time, not least because I had uninterrupted time to write, and my meals were mostly cooked for me, which feels like #livingthedream. What I loved most about the residencies, that took place in two small towns, was my ability to walk alone, for long periods, on the road or in the wilderness, without being harassed. This simple pleasure, an hour long walk a day where I didn’t feel like I had to be afraid, where nobody said anything to me about how I looked or what I was doing alone, and where I could be in nature and consume the beauty of the natural world, was something that I treasured. It helped me sleep better. It helped me write better. It made me feel more human.

The first week back in South Africa after the first residency, I was sexually harassed by a man while walking down the street to visit some old work friends. When I ignored him, which is my instinctive reaction (sometimes my instinct is to keep walking with my middle finger in the air), he took the liberty of crossing the road in case it was a matter of his lewd suggestions being unheard rather than deliberately ignored. He wanted to make sure that I knew he was there, looking at me. It was only when a kind male stranger walked next to me and told him to go away that he stopped. But even this didn’t make me feel better – he didn’t stop because he realised it was vicious, destructive, or offensive to shout comments at me. He stopped because he believed I belonged to another man. I was still an object to him.

I’m at the age where I think about what it might mean to raise a little girl in this world and to be frank, it terrifies me. I wonder how I will tell her that she has the rights and power to do anything she puts her mind to, but simultaneously explain that she should also probably be hypervigilant when crossing the street at night or when choosing an intimate partner. I don’t know that this double-think double-living is psychologically tenable.

I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where women could go on a walk every day for the sheer pleasure of it, and what women would be capable of doing if they were really free.

Short Story 3: Lauren Beukes, Confirm/Ignore

This week the internet is excited about a short story on the New Yorker called Cat Person. I read it, loved it, and will probably write about it soon.

In a strange coincidence, this morning I picked up Lauren Beukes’ latest collection Slipping and flicked through looking for a short story to read. I landed on ‘Confirm/Ignore’ a story about the worlds we build for ourselves and about ourselves online.

 

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Find out more at http://laurenbeukes.com/

 

First line: Yellow is my favourite color. That’s what I’d like you to believe. (Okay, I added two lines, but it was necessary for you to get what the point of the story was).

The story is narrated by one character, who from the start of the story reveals to us that they are not what they seem. They describe their interests, religious beliefs, favourite authors and films, and they share friends with the person they’re talking to. Of course, as we all know from being online, what people share there isn’t a reflection of who they really are, or sometimes who they are at all.

Like Cat Person Beukes’ short story asks us to examine what we’re consuming and producing online without being didactic. It explores the lies we tell to build the relationships and persona that we want online, sometimes without being deliberately deceitful, and other times on purpose. It doesn’t say ‘HEY LOOK HERE THIS CHARACTER IS LYING’, but from those first two sentences we know they are.

Slipping is a mixed collection of stories and essays and ‘other writing’ from Beukes. She’s a celebrated South African writer, with four novels, a bunch of graphic fiction, and two other non-fiction books under her belt. In three short pages, she managed to capture something we can all relate to and to remind me to check my friends list on Facebook to make sure those are my real ‘friends’.

I also really enjoyed Slipping the story, about a sort of cyborg Olympics gone one AI step too far. Like I did, you can get the collection at the amazing Book Lounge.