It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens must have been looking over my shoulder in 2019 because it was definitely a year of mixed fortunes.
I started with great optimism that I would – finally – complete my Booker Prize project. But I’m ending the year with one book still to go.
In January I was confident I would also finish the long-overdue Classics Club Project. Yet, here I am a year later with two books adrift from that total of 50.
On the plus side of the 56 books I read this year, 39 were by authors I’ve never encountered before. Some of them are going to be writers I will want to read more from in the future; such as Diane Setterfield, Vita Sackville-West; Brian Moore and Patrick Gale.
I also added four new countries to my world of literature reading list thanks to the 20booksofsummer reading project (or in my case 13 books). Austria, Croatia; Jamaica and Rwanda brought the total of countries to 41 and edging me closer to the target of 50.
And now for the 2019 roll of honour
Shortest Book Of The Year
Sanditon by Jane Austen. Calling this a book is actually stretching the description. It is only 128 pages long and isn’t complete. It’s a fragment of a novel Jane Austen was writing when she succumbed to illness. She laid it aside and died before she could complete the text. It was re-issued in 2019 to coincide with a new television version written by Andrew Davies – you can’t even call it an adaptation since he admitted he’s used all of Austen’s material before even episode 2. Not that it matters because I watched part of it, thought it was dire, and resolved not to bother any further.
Longest Book Of The Year
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is 614 pages of sheer bliss. He takes four strangers from different backgrounds and with vastly different attitudes to life and throws them together in an unamed Indian city. Around them the country is in turmoil as the declaration of a State of Emergency gives official licence to detention, torture and forced sterilisation. The novel is a joy from start to finish.
Biggest Surprise Of 2019
I read eight non fiction books this year; more than in any previous year. Even more of a surprise – five of them were outstanding. One is even shortlisted for my Book of the Year award. I seem to be developing an interest in memoirs which is a genre I’ve never given much thought to in the past. It will be interesting to see if this continues through to next year.
Best Book By Welsh Author 2019
The prize goes to Alis Hawkins for None So Blind, the first in the Harry Probert-Lloyd historical crime fiction series. Set in rural Wales in the nineteenth century, this novel demonstrates admirally how to seamlessly weave research into a novel without detracting from the narrative flow.
Most Disappointing Book 2019
Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth among the thousands of readers for whom this was a favourite book of 2019. It was hailed as a powerful story about a miscarriage of justice and the black American middle class experience. But I never felt the injustice issue was being tackled head on in a way I would have expected given all the praise heaped on this novel.
Best Non Fiction Book 2019
I’m really spoiled for choice but I’ve narrowed the options down to three books. Becoming by Michelle Obama was an outstanding mix of humour, insight and reflection This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay took us behind the scenes of the medical profession in the UK with a book that had the ability to make me chortle and vent in equal measure. Reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, the memoirs of a couple who embarked on a 600 mile walk when they were evicted from their farm left me awed by their resilience but angry at the way homeless people are viewed.
And the winner is ….. The Salt Path. I felt I walked every step with this couple, feeling their hurt when people shunned their company and sharing their joy in nature. A tremendous book that deserves all the praise it’s received.
Best Book In Translation 2019
A Whole Life by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler was remarkable. Just 149 pages long it was an evocative, tender story of a quiet soul who has a remarkable capacity to accept whatever life throws at him. It was moving but wasn’t sentimental. Just pitch perfect I thought.
Best Book 2019
And now for the ultimate accolade: the title of my favourite book from 2019. I was looking for a book that I enjoyed reading at the time but have continued to think about long after I closed it for the last time. I asked myself which book/s had I recommended most frequently and which book/s had I talked about most often during the year.
There were four books that stood out.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West for its tremendous portrayal of an elderly woman
How It All Began by Penelope Lively; an exquisitely contrived novel of seven lives derailed because of a single event.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore is an unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness. It qualifies as the most painfully sad book I’ve read for many years.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. For the reasons I described earlier.
And the prize goes to ……
…. The Salt Path. A book I have urged friends everywhere to buy and read. I hope I’ve encouraged you all to go out and buy/borrow it as soon as possible.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Of the million or so photographs featuring Michelle Obama, two will be forever etched in my memory.
One shows the First Lady of the United States jumping about and getting sweaty with a bunch of kids on the front lawn of the White House.
The other image dates from her first visit to the United Kingdom. During an official reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, Michelle Obama put her arm around the monarch.
To say the resulting photographs astonished royal watchers is putting it mildly because touching the Queen is strictly forbidden. It’s not treason as such (an offence that could see you carted off to the Tower of London) but it’s definitely one of the most heinous transgressions of royal protocol.
What was astonishing about both these images was that they turned on their head everything we’d ever seen from previous holders of the role of First Lady.
There’s no position description for the First Lady. But we got used to the idea over the decades that they’re in a supportive role to the star turn of The President. Always gracious, always immaculately dressed; a walking advert for American fashion designers. They can engage in charitable endeavours but rarely speak out about issues.
Michelle Obama broke that mould. Never before had we seen a First Lady dress so casually in sneakers, leggings and t shirts; Never before had we seen her get down and dirty while digging and planting a vegetable patch. And never before had we seen someone so touchy-feely.
Her memoir Becoming was similarly ground breaking. It’s the first completely honest account from a First Lady of the experiences that shaped her personality and influenced her attitudes.
It’s a work of stellar storytelling taking us from her modest background in Chicago, through academic success to an unfulfilling career in corporate law. The life she envisaged was “a predictable, control-freak existence – the one with the steady salary, a house to life in forever, a routine to my days.”
But then came the event that changed her life entirely – she was asked to take a young, mega talented law student under her wing during a summer placement. Barak Obama put her life on a completely new trajectory, catapulting her into the uncomfortable world of politics and to the highest office in her country.
It’s a career progression that in some eyes would be considered a fairytale. What I loved most about Becoming is that she is so candid about her struggles and disappointments.
Most of the issues she describes are those that ordinary people can relate to easily. The struggle to balance work with family commitments; the heartbreak of miscarriages and the challenge of maintaining a relationship with a partner who is away from home for much of the week.
Taking up residence in the White House presents a whole new set of difficulties. She can’t open a window because it’s a security risk. She can’t go out with her husband without entire streets being closed down. She can’t even go to a shop to buy him an anniversary card. Being in the public eye means every thing she says or wears is subjected to public scrutiny; even a change of hairstyle has to be agreed in advance by the Presidents’s staff.
Chief of her concerns however is the well-being of her daughters. The constant question for Michelle Obama is how to make sure the girls enjoy a normal childhood experience when they have to be accompanied everywhere by protection offers. Not much fun when you want to go out on your first date.
Dealing With Criticism
And of course, there is the constant threat to her projects from detractors who see her as a threat.
I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.
What comes through strongly is that Michelle Obama is a woman with an exceptionally strong streak of determination. She learned at an early age to never give up and that the best way to deal with people who wanted to thwart her ambition, was to ignore them. It’s an attitude she saw exhibited by many of the highly talented people she met later in life.
All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise, doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.
Self -belief is one of the lessons she wants to pass on through the book, as she did with the groups of young women she met throughout her time as First Lady.
Becoming A Role Model
Becoming has been one of my best reading experiences of 2019. It’s an account of extraordinary life told with intelligence, humour, warmth and oodles of self-awareness.
This is a woman who had a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about changes. While her husband focused on changing attitudes to healthcare and gun control, she focused on child obesity and job and education opportunities for ex servicemen.
In doing so she became a role model for young women around the world. But Michelle Obama is emphatic at the end of the book that she has no intention of going into politics herself.
I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten
years has done little to change that.
That doesn’t mean she is going to disappear – the initiatives that she lead while First Lady are so close to her heart that she is continuing to work on them. But what lies ahead is an interesting question. The title of her book refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better. It’s a clue that we can expect to see more of her in the future. A clear case of Watch This Space.
Reading Horizons: November 2019
What I’m reading now
I’ve been digging into my stack of “owned but unread” books in an attempt to bring some order to the chaos of the bookshelves.
A Change of Climate was published in 1994 and is nothing like any of the other books by Hilary Mantel that I’ve read. She never seems to write the same kind of book twice.
This one is focused on a couple living in Norfolk who run a charitable trust for homeless people; drug addicts and problem teenagers. In their early married life they worked as missionaries in South Africa at a time when restrictions are tightening towards the non white population. The couple’s liberal attitudes land them in trouble and they are arrested.
I’m half way through and while I’m enjoying Mantel’s descriptive style I think the book needs to move up a gear now.
By contrast I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, owner of the second largest second hand bookshop in Scotland.
It’s a journal which details the day to day events including the number of books ordered, the number of customers and total sales for the day (horrifyingly low!) Shaun’s comments on his often eccentric customers and his eccentric shop assistant Nicky are wonderful because he has a great eye for the absurd. This should be required reading for anyone thinking of buying a bookshop because while it sounds like great fun, the economic reality is sobering.
What I just finished reading
After a run of three books so disappointing that I abandoned them (one of them after just 5 pages) it was a delight to read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. From start to finish it gave a fascinating insight into the character of a woman that stamped her mark on the White House. I loved her honesty and her humility – even with everything she achieved, she constantly asked herself “Will I be good enough.”
The Bowery Slugger was an experimental toe in the water of crime noir. Set in one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century, it traces the downward spiral into violence of a Jewish immigrant boy. The level of violence was disturbing but the book was redeemed by its depiction of New York gang culture and the Jewish community.
What I’ll read next
A friend keeps raving about the Australian author Jane Harper. I have two of her novels, The Lost Man and Force of Nature, both of which are appealing. But I’m also in the mood for some Trollope so might delve into the next in the Barchester Chronicles – Framley Parsonage.
That should keep me busy for a while.
Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.