My favourite non-2019 books I read in 2019

It always feels unfair to only document my favourite books I read during a year that came out that year, so I’m also listing my favourite catchily-named-non-that-year books, as I did last year and the year before. This year my comments on each may have become a little more facetious, as the actual books got more heavy-going.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor – The version I read was technically published this year, but seeing as it was published before it’s going here. This is Ovid for the modern day: a 90s LGBT culture shapeshifter story with a picaresque vibe.

The Arsonists by Max Frisch – Thanks to watching Philosophy Tube this year, I discovered not only works of philosophy, but also some more-modern-than-my-early-modern-degree plays, and this one had me sat up reading it in one go. In short, don’t play with fire.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – I live-tweeted my response to reading the book I had never read due to irrational dislike until the BBC adaptation tempted me to give it a go. On here because it was actually an enjoyable, if occasionally digressive, experience.

No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre – I said I’d got into 20th century plays (that aren’t just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus – Yes, really. Was it not a year for the absurd?

To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov – I keep recommending this or bringing up concepts from it to everyone so it has to go on here. Why finding tech solutions to everything isn’t always the answer.

Hello World by Hannah Fry – My year really was all existentialism or technology. Fry’s account of how algorithms shape our world and what we can do about it is engaging and deeply interesting. Plus it helped me shape some of the articles in our online Digital Wellbeing course.

Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield – Another one, I know. Each chapter is about a different technology and how it has or might change our world, and it is surprisingly possible to even understand the chapters on blockchain and cryptocurrency (mostly).

My favourite books of 2019

That time again: for reading through lists of books and thinking ‘oh yeah, I did mean to read that this year’. My list seems shorter this year, possibly because I read a lot of decent books that came out this year, but not that many which count as favourites (and you can see the Spite List for the other end of the scale). My favourite books that came out in 2019, in order of when I read them (links to full reviews where written):

Fiction

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – Another female retelling of the Trojan War, but this time epic in scope and style.

Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy – Eerie heatwave coming of age gothic set in 70s Wales.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn – Set between Jamaica and America, this novel tells the story of Patsy and her daughter Tru and their struggles with identity, sexuality, and finding a home.

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson – Winterson’s retelling of Frankenstein to feature AI, gender, and what is life and death – not always nuanced, but interesting.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong – Lyrical prose about telling your story in Vuong’s debut novel, about trauma, addiction, and growing up.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – Two rival agents fall in love across the battlegrounds of time in this short novel that seems to have made a lot of people fall in love with it and its two female protagonists, ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’.

Meat Market by Juno Dawson – If you’ve read her previous novel Clean, you won’t be surprised that this is a sharp, sometimes shocking look at the fashion industry, abuse, and teenage models, aimed at but not only for a YA audience.

Birthday by Meredith Russo – Part of this made me cry on a plane, but it’s okay because it has a happy ending – a YA novel about Morgan and Eric, best friends whose love story is told through their shared birthday each year.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – A tense novel about a reform school’s corruption and abuse, combining the history of a real institution with a well-plotted narrative.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston – What would happen if the son of a female US president realises his rivalry with the Prince of Wales might not be about dislike after all? Everyone raved about this feelgood read and eventually I overcame the monarchy aspect to agree that it is very sweet and funny.

Nonfiction

Underland by Robert Macfarlane – My real surprise of the year was enjoying this account of subterranean travel and thought as much as I did.

The Creativity Code by Marcus du Santoy – What AI can (and can’t) do with creativity, but written in a way that is pretty accessible.

No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference by Greta Thunberg – Must be on so many lists, but it really is powerful and short enough to just give to everyone to read.

Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie – The story of Cambridge Analytica, from the inside. Brings it all together in a terrifying way (I should add that’s the actual title, I didn’t censor it).

The Spite List

Or, the worst books I read in 2019

I didn’t do a proper spite list last year, but I had to do one this time if only for 3 and 5 on this list. Do not fear, my favourite books of the year (both published this year and not) will be following soon to get past the negativity, but for those who prefer spite, here it is. The books I didn’t get on with, in order of when this year I read them:

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland – I used to be really into 90s American fiction, and I currently read a fair bit about tech companies, so I thought this would be up my street. Instead, it turned out to just be boring. Microsoft employees…get fed up of working for Microsoft. Some of it could’ve been amusing with hindsight if I was overwhelmed by how much I didn’t care about any of it.

Miracle Workers by Simon Rich – The premise – two angels need to stop God closing down Earth – sounded, again, like something I might like. The execution, again, was boring, and possibly too amused by its own concept.

Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson – Here begins the real spite part of my list. I wrote a review of why I didn’t like this one, but basically, it is far too long, the second half is almost unreadable, and the ideas could have been just as interesting in a fraction of the space. Also I would argue it doesn’t deserve the title at all (but maybe that’s because the title is what made me interested in it). Apparently I shouldn’t have trusted books about any kind of afterlife this year.

The Club by Takis Wurger – I picked this up due to my inability to not read books that promise to be about shady things at Oxbridge (or other elite universities). The few reviews of it should’ve warned me, but it was both not a very interesting example of that not-really-a-genre and used a handful of outdated slurs and ‘no homo’ moments for seemingly no reason (other than presumably avoiding the inherent homoeroticism of all ‘shady things at elite university’ novels).

Find Me by André Aciman – I also wrote a proper review of why I didn’t like this one, but the tl;dr version is: what was the point of this other than trying to cash in on the popularity of Call Me By Your Name and failing? The narratives just feel aimless and I wasn’t sure why I was meant to care.

A Lukewarm Defence of Yet Another TV Adaptation

If you follow my Twitter, you’ll probably know that I just read Les Misérables (in Donougher’s nicely approachable translation). You may have also picked up that I used to hate Les Mis despite never having consumed any media relating to it. And the only reason I went from irrational hatred to picking up what cannot be described as a ‘quick read’ is the recent BBC TV adaption of the book.

Whenever there’s a new TV adaptation of a classic book, there tends to be fuss around how faithful it is, the casting, the directorial choices, and whether we really need more TV adaptations of classic books. There are plenty of other stories to be told, after all. Making more adaptations often seems to just give English teachers more options when they need to show the class a screen version of the text as a treat/bribe/[insert better reason here] (watching the 1970s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore film at A Level was more of a punishment, to be honest). Fresh adaptations of newer books give more stories a chance and possibly lessen period drama fatigue.

Regardless of this, I seem to be defending to some extent making more of these adaptations of old books. There’s plenty of good reasons to defend them—a chance to update interpretations of the text on screen, lots of old ones are quite bad, can finally make that very faithful or incredibly not faithful version that was needed—but I’m going to go with my personal one: bringing new audiences to books and ideas.

I hated Les Mis because I was on the internet around the time that the film of the musical of the book (must be said like that for full adaptation value) came out. Those who weren’t on the internet around this time may not be aware of quite how many people were obsessive about Les Mis. There was endless debate, screenshots, jokes, calling it ‘The Brick’ like everyone knew exactly what you meant, being obsessed with characters who turn up a long way in and then die not a huge number of pages later, and the songs. Oh, the songs. I hadn’t even heard the songs, but I felt like I had.

So I hated it. I don’t like musicals so that felt like justification, but really it was the fact so many people wouldn’t shut up about it. I lived my life for a number of years happy in my dislike of it. I had no interest in the news there was a TV adaptation. In fact, one of the main reasons I was willing to try watching it was because I spend a lot of time around people who study the eighteenth and early nineteenth century who were also going to give it a go, and they said the first episode was good. So I watched it. And it was.

Now, I don’t care if you think it was a good adaptation or a good piece of drama or what the hell was that font. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that I enjoyed it, hooked on the story and Javert’s endless “Jean Valjean!” and the fact there was less dialogue than there was David Oyelowo and Dominic West glaring and doing a lot of silent acting at each other. And because I enjoyed it, I gave up my irrational dislike and a few months later, actually read the book.

I conclude my lukewarm defence of all these damn classic book screen adaptations by saying maybe it doesn’t matter if people read these books or get into them, but at least the adaptations are ways people can get into these stories which are often referenced in other places and are also ripe for reworking and retelling in updated and interesting ways. Though that is venturing worryingly far into saying adaptations are good for creating the kind of annoying fandom that made me hate Les Mis in the first place.

The holiday book conundrum

There’s no good way to start a post about going on holiday without sounding like you’re showing off, or so I’ve decided in the past five minutes. Regardless, I am going on holiday in a week, and I have a big decision to make. One that may change my entire life (with a little imagination). Which book should I take with me?

Plenty of books are marketed as ‘holiday reads’. The phrase conjures for me an image of thick paperbacks you might take on the beach, in whichever genre you may like best. Lots of thrillers seem to be touted as travel companions, presumably in case your holiday is so rubbish you need escapism. Articles suggest recent popular books that you might want to catch up on now that you’ve got some time away from the daily grind. A quick Google brought up Waterstones’ page of ‘holiday reads’, which seem to have the defining feature of being books that exist (actually, they’re paperback books that exist, for easier packing I assume).

None of this helps my decision. I’m only going for a few days and only taking a backpack so the book must be singular. There’s not likely to be much reading time, but I still want to take a book. My previous two cheap European city break holidays don’t offer much inspiration. When I went to Rome as an undergrad I took the major works of Byron so I could continue reading Don Juan (and did sit on the top bunk in a shared room in a comic book themed hostel reading it). I don’t remember which book I took to Berlin (a hunt through our holiday photos and a bit of squinting reveals it was Steppenwolf), but I know I bought a Reclam copy of A Clockwork Orange with endearing German footnotes. I could read something related to my location, but I’ve already read a few Czech books in translation thanks to having a Czech friend and I’ve been reading Kafka as some kind of pre-holiday homework.

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With this in mind, here are my thoughts on what may make the best holiday reads:

  • A book that doubles up as something else – With baggage restrictions and limited space, you need a Swiss army knife of a book. Either something thin that could also be a fan, or something hefty that could be a doorstop or a weapon.
  • A book featuring characters visiting exciting locations that aren’t the one you’re in – Then you get two holidays: the one you’re on and the one you’re getting vicariously through a novel.
  • A book listing the best holiday reads – Would take the decision away, meaning you can just flick through pages looking at what you could be reading.

On Deaths of the Poets, interest in dead poets, and trying to be a live one

As an undergrad English student, I definitely lost time after searching online for lists of the deaths of famous writers. Some of them are quite weird or horribly fitting, others infamous or still blunt. In Deaths of the Poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts travel through the deaths of poets to consider the image of the poet as a dangerous vocation, where mortality seems to be the price paid for creation. They literally travel, indeed, around the death places of many major poets from Chatterton in the late eighteenth century to some who have died in the twenty-first, making the book part-travelogue, part literary history, and part-musing on being a poet.

It is a morbid whistle-stop tour in many ways, with the chapters organised by theme (and ‘theme’ is mostly related to their deaths) and thus jumping across time and place, particularly across the Atlantic. They concentrate on famous British and American poets writing in English, so their travelling features more than its fair share of New York (and a strange trip to my hometown thanks to John Clare). The book is, almost as a side effect, a useful way of gaining some knowledge of a lot of famous poets from the past two hundred years in a concise way (a bit like reading Wikipedia pages to find out how they died).

More than that, the authors are trying to examine the image of the dying poet, the post-Chatterton post-Romantic of a poet going out in an often troubled, possibly drunken blaze. They cover poets who famously died young—John Keats being high on the list, also war poets and others—and those who actually lived out a fairly long life. The answer to the question ‘is it a myth?’ is inconclusive by the end, but it was never really a scientific endeavour.

Deaths of the Poets is written by two poets and part of its work is a consideration of being a poet, in a historically-facing way. There are some offhand claims that poets don’t use Twitter or are somehow caught in the past, which is unfair to plenty of technology-embracing poets and poetry fans who also like old poetry. Perhaps it is difficult to reconcile the image of long-gone poets stuck in their time and modern, technological ways people can be still enjoying them (or Googling their deaths). The internet has made literary pilgrimages of the type the book’s authors embark on much easier: simply search online and you’ll find websites telling you the right house to stand outside or (this is very much from personal experience) exactly how to find John Thelwall’s grave in Bath.

The book has an underlying message about the humanness of the physical deaths of poets and the focus on details of their writing and non-writing lives that feels slightly at odds with its comments about poets today, an image which does seem to imply poetry writing is specific to an exclusive group of people stuck somewhat in the past. As someone who both loves a number of long-dead poets and has seen how trying to get into writing poetry and hoping for poems to be published is an off-putting and often inaccessible place, these moments felt a little off.

As with many books that cover a lot of different bits of literary history, this one works well as a primer on the stories of a lot of big name poets, with the opportunity for those who know more about a writer to get frustrated at elements of their presentation. It is a reminder of our fascination with the lives of these notable few and the almost mythical position they can hold in cultural consciousness, without consideration of greater depth. However, maybe it needs to demythologise the figure of the poet a little more. As it points out, they’re just people who lived and died like anyone else.

Don’t Go To Byron’s Birthday Party

Seeing as it is Lord Byron’s birthday, I thought I’d do a Byron-related post, as someone who has definitely never ever dressed up as him. He’s a poet mostly known for his bear and his sex life (well, and being a dick, but if there’s anything you learn from an English degree, it’s that so were most writers). My favourite burn is from an old All Souls exam paper that I remember finding online: ‘was Byron as funny as he thought he was?’ (depends on the day, for both him and the reader in question).

This post isn’t to give his life story. For that, read Fiona MacCarthy’s brilliant biography Byron: Life and Legend. And also bear in mind that this is someone who lived for 36 years, did a lot of self-mythologising and being fictionalised by other people, and then two hundred years of people changing, adding, believing, and a whole lot more with these stories.

There’s not even really space to talk about his poetry, partly due to how long some of it is. Byron uses a lot of stupid rhymes, dramatic imagery, and frankly flimsily-veiled references to his life (the fourth and final canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a tour round Europe slash meditation on being a brooding Romantic figure, features Byron complaining people thought he was the titular pilgrim even though he’s sure he made it very certain that he’s not, not at all). Two of his short poems are famous and get in general anthologies (‘She Walks In Beauty’ and “So, We’ll Go No More A Roving”). His famous major works, the previously mentioned Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the sprawling and more comic Don Juan, are long and not necessarily easy to get into.

The short ‘Darkness’ is fantastic: dramatic and unnerving. If you know anything about the Romantic period (or are willing to read a lot of notes to get the references) then read the dedication to Don Juan, which has some of the best use of terrible rhymes as comic insults (on Coleridge: “Explaining metaphysics to the nation— / I wish he would explain his Explanation”). As it is his birthday, read ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ and remember he died three months later.

I could write many things about books relating to Byron/using him in a fictionalised way/referencing him for some reason or another, but I’ve already posted on here about Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon (and its similarity to Twilight) and this has become quite long already. Instead, here’s a video to enjoy, the amazingly weird ‘Dread Poets’ Society’, aka Benjamin Zephaniah accidentally meets the Romantic poets on a train (I would’ve also linked to the Horrible Histories Byron parody about him not being a vampire just a pretentious poet, but sadly I can’t find it on YouTube).

The poem that got me into liking Byron (and, in fact, probably Romantic poetry as a whole) was having to read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in the holidays before we did the paper including the Romantics during my undergrad degree. Some of it is the way the poem sounds—the best lines are the ones you want to keep reciting aloud—and also just the way things are phrased and described was unlike what I’d seen before (“And thus the heart will break, yet brokenly live on”). The end of canto III has some of the most quotable bits all at once, so I’ll give a little bit to close on:

“I have loved not the world, nor the world me, — / But let us part fair foes”.

Spite List: The Worst Books I Read in 2017

After claiming you should know what you hate, I really ought to practice it, and what better way than by moaning about things I read this year. If I’m being honest, I’ve actually left a few books off this list because I’ve already given them harsh reviews and I feel they were enough respectively. I’d say ‘no particular order’, but that’s untrue, Underworld is at the top because I disliked reading it that much.

  • Underworld by Don DeLillo – It’s too long. It’s mostly about men talking about baseball. I’m fed up of big American novels unless they’re doing something innovative. Did I mention I don’t know anything about baseball? I found the experience like talking to a very boring man who wouldn’t let me escape.
  • The Minor Outsider by Ted McDermott – If Underworld is being cornered by a man trying to tell you that politics is all a sports metaphor for many hours, The Minor Outsider was the guy who thinks his writing is better than yours but actually isn’t. Basically the main character is boring and unlikeable and I found the writing mediocre at best.
  • Higher Ed by Tessa McWatt – I didn’t so much dislike this book as I just found it boring. I picked it up because I wanted more London-set novels after having stopped living there, but it just…had no spark.
  • Prague Nights by Benjamin Black – Another disappointing boring book that I picked up because it was about an interesting city. I should learn. But I did read some quite fun books set in Berlin this year so I won’t give up all hope.
  • Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh – The main problem with this book was that it was a ‘white people in Africa’ story. Also it was slow.

Order in the bookcase

This blog has been a little quiet for the past week as I was moving house and working. One part of this was building a bookcase. Only a thin one because I left the majority of my books with my parents, having learnt my lesson that when you know you’ll be moving again in a year/under a year, don’t take all of them with you (unless you’re planning, as I did one year, to build your bedside table out of books and a piece of wood). After two English graduates remembered how 3D space worked and marvelled at how wood and screws can come together, a bookcase existed. And then I had to organise it.

How you organise your books is controversial (though there’s a fairly uniting disdain for people who do it by colour). There’s alphabetical, the classic, but then do you split further into categories like fiction and non-fiction or form or genre? You can just sort by categories, maybe subdivide by topic. Time period works if you own a lot of  ‘classic’ literature. When you’re lacking in space, as I have been, the best option can be by priority, creating your own ‘high use’ material (this is the only way to make a book bedside table without needing to dismantle it all the time).

I work in a library so you think mine would be very organised. Actually, they’re not. The shelves are as follows, from the top: drama (and a teapot); poetry and two books about Byron; prose, mostly novels but also Wollstonecraft’s Vindication(s); a small thematic shelf that is solely The Secret History, A Little Life, and If We Were Villains (and a cuddly bat); the Harry Potter books plus DVDs, a copy of Quidditch Through The Ages that my friend delightfully graffiti’d in character, and a Buckbeak keyring; and finally, a misc shelf that is keeping the bookcase stable by containing the complete works of Shakespeare, The Goldfinch, The Stranger’s Child, a single hardback book, and a selection of things I didn’t think I’d be reading too soon, but I did want to have with me.

It’s a fluid system that needs to be able to integrate parts of my to-read shelf once they’re read (these books are currently on my desk urging to be chosen next). It is also based upon whim and could be totally changed in a few months (say, after Christmas and my birthday, the main book gaining times of the year handily only a week apart). I think my point is, organise your books how you want. You’re the person who has to find/look at them, after all. Though if you have a particularly notable system, do share it so we can all be outraged/inspired.