I haven’t done this for a while – I like to make a big list of the books I read or failed to finish in the year gone past and, sometimes, post it on the blog. So, here’s a rough overview of the year’s highlights and the list of what I read or failed to finish. I’ve tried to keep it shorter than last time. I’m not sure I have. HMU with your recommended reads for 2019?
I read far fewer books than last year and for months at a time, didn’t want to read at all. It’s practically a sign of me being a pod-person. If you’re talking to me about books and I say ‘Eh, I’m not really reading anything right now,’ you call the police, ’cause the invasion has started… I’m going to blame it on studying for my MA – it sorted of poisoned reading for me, turning it into a chore, not something that I did for fun. Writing, too, actually.
My most read author this year was Hunter S. Thompson. His three and a half books narrowly hedged out Douglas Adams for the top spot. More fool HST, I say – my love for Adam’s absurd, insightful understanding of the mess of being a jumped-up ape in a complicated universe endures, while my opinion of HST has taken a battering. The juvenile novelty of Thompson’s aggressive edginess has worn off, and while there’s much to admire in his quest for the truth, and to live life on his own terms, his antics begin to wear, and you find yourself thinking, ‘Wow, Hunter, you can be a bit of an asshole, huh?’ Then you get to the truly questionable scenes with Lucy in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or the Witness sections in Kingdom of Fear and a pattern begins to emerge that makes you think ‘Did this happen? Are you a bit of a monster?’ Thompson’s writing is vital and punchy, his behaviour and content is sketchy and concerning at best.
HST and Adams nabbed the top spots for most volumes read, but other authors had the biggest impact. Two of Kurt Vonnegut’s books cemented his place as one of my favourite authors. Like Adams, he describes our farting about on earth with a kindess and humour that we often don’t deserve. Ursula le Guin featured again, another of my favourites. The Lathe of Heaven captured my imagination for days after I read it, and had me asking myself what was important to me and why I wasn’t doing it. Her focus on the people at the centre of her stories is something I want to emulate in my own writing.
I’d put off reading The Handmaid’s Tale for a long time: I didn’t want to immerse myself in a fictional world that seemed to be our current destination, or America’s, at least. I’m glad I did, however. Margaret Attwood might as well command the lathe of heaven; what she writes seems so very, very real, from the people to the setting.
Finally, an unexpected joy, Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is imprinted on my mind, a beautiful, bittersweet story. I’d heard of Diaz, but he wasn’t on my reading list until a friend gave me a copy she was giving to a charity shop. Serendipitous. Diaz switches through the unique voices of the story’s narrators with ease, and tells a tragic tale that I couldn’t put down.
That’s just a short list of notables, there were plenty of other excellent reads this year, which you can find below, arranged in the order that I read them.
- Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
- Another Country by James Baldwin (incomplete) – truly depressing. Might go back when I’m in a better mood.
- Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher was a firm favourite.
- The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin – riveting, uncomfortable read, with parallels to the current backlash against women and feminism. I did a combo review of the book and Rosemary’s Baby here.
- God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut – Where one of the most quoted sections of Vonnegut comes from:
Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’
- Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson (incomplete) – review
- Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin – Levin never lets you get comfortable in a story. I think I’m normally quite good at predicting what comes next in novels – Levin had me tying myself in knots, trying to figure it out. Combo review available here.
- Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 by Hunter S Thompson (incomplete) – I got to the bit where Thompson describes how there’s no one to vote for, and only people to vote against, and it reminded me so much of current politics, nearly fifty years later, I stopped reading it out of disgust.
- The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin – My all time favourite science fiction writer.
- How to cook a wolf by MFK Fisher (incomplete) – entertaining, dead pan writing, with dry asides and annotations by the author added in a later version. Had to stop reading it for an assignment deadline and can’t wait to go back and finish it.
- Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Re-read)
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport – Good read, influenced a lot of my thinking about social media, and I had a wonderful summer by giving them all up completely.
- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson (Re-read)
- Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968-1976 (Fear and Loathing Letters vol 2) by Hunter S. Thompson – Probably a bit obscure for most people. Full review.
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (Re-read) – Mr. Murakami and I struggle to get on. I enjoyed Chronicle, but the stories in the book only seem tangentially related. I’m not a big fan of randomness for the sake of randomness, and that’s what quite big bits of this felt like, despite the fact that individual stories were engaging.
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – Hoo boy, Diaz can write, eh? Sat down and devoured it in one sitting. See above.
- The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanne Clarke – I adored Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (enough that I considered making a theme blog to discuss the book as though it was an academic journal focused on their magic – yes, I know, I’m an incurable nerd, I’m aware) and it was nice to be back in Clarke’s magical world.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood – Margaret Attwood rules. That’s is all. See above.
- Kingdom of Fear by Hunter S. Thompson – Some sections made me deeply uncomfortable. I’m really not sure about the Witness sections. I’m disinclined to believe him.
- The Restaurant at the End of Universe by Douglas Adams – I can’t help but imagine Arthur, Ford, Trillian and Zaphod as Martin, Mos, Zooey and Sam. Adams is hysterical and pointed.
- Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams
- The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams
- No one is too small to make a difference by Greta Thunberg – Powerful set of essays, by a very smart young woman. It’s a tragedy that she’s had to write and give these speeches, however. They’re a testament to her character, but they represent a failing of society. It’s appalling that we have to be told these things by a sixteen year old, who shouldn’t have to bear the burden.
- Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
- Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen – I’ve been playing a pen and paper RPG based on 5e D&D with friends set in a guns and sorcery style old west world for years, called Into the Nightlands and Bowen only went and wrote a book that feels like it could be an Ur-Text. Awesome, great characters, fab setting, had no. 2 for Christmas and can’t wait to read it.
- Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor – Wicked sorcery, a vibrant, fascinating setting, great characters. Just all around great fantasy.
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
- Nod by Adrian Barnes – Barnes’ ability to create a convincing depiction of a world falling apart shouldn’t be underestimated. Thrilling read.
- Essayism by Brian Dillon (incomplete) – Wonderful essays, a discovery of a trove of new ideas for me, having never really looked at essays as a form before. Stopped reading because of another blasted deadline, and again, waiting to go back.
- Memphis 68: The tragedy of southern soul by Stuart Cosgrove (incomplete)
- The Vagabond King by Jodie Bond – A grand adventure through a unique fantasy world. Bond’s characters are distinct, flawed and well drawn. (Full disclosure, Jodie is a friend and utterly blew my mind by including our group in the acknowledgements!)
- Walkaway by Cory Doctorow (Re-read) – One of my all time favourite novels. Doctorow’s sci-fi utopia is a hopeful blue print for the future. Here’s to the first days of a better nation!
- Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman (incomplete) – Aciman’s writing is beautiful, but I found the characters unbelievable and the jarring age difference between Elio and Oliver a little too much to over come. Elio sounds like a forty-year-old classics professor pretending to be a teenager. Oliver’s serial relationships with teenagers despite massive differences in age and maturity, skirts the edges of concerning.
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner – Lerner’s engaging take on why hating poetry might be a good thing had me looking at poetry in a new light, and for that, it’s worth a read. Full review here.
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman – I’m very late to the Neil Gaiman party, having only read Good Omens and Norse Gods before now – his fiction is deserving of the acclaim he gets. Coraline is a beautiful little book, with a great message. There’s an unnecessary not-review, here.
- Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow – I love that technology in Doctorow’s books is wholly subservient and never a character that pushes people about. They’re not slaves to, nor living in fear of, big tech. Full review here.
Wow, did you get all the way down here? You trooper. Tell me what you read this year and loved or hated?