First reads of 2019

Reading more was one of my 2019 resolutions. I've always read a lot. But sometimes I just stop and - during those times - reading becomes a mystery to me, a vague ritual I once followed, like an exercise regime long forgotten. But even when the ritual is forgotten, the feeling is missed and I've loved reclaiming that feeling this year.

One of the things greatly abetting my reading is that I've started using my Kindle a lot more. I initially purchased one for business books, and the like, that I didn't want cluttering my shelves. But I've become a lot more ruthless about what books I want to own a physical copy of, and reading on a Kindle has allowed me to buy books without having to weigh and measure that part of the decision.

I also just read faster and more often with it. I had always hated the idea — yet another screen. But, for now, this is working for me. Here's what I've read so far this year, in order of impact.

1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I have the most to say about A Little Life as I just finished it last night and have spent the morning mopping up my feelings about it. A few people told me they felt this book manipulative. At worst, an episode of This Is Us — emotional porn, fetishistic in its desire to layer suffering and elicit wrenching responses. Yes.

But I mostly thought it a book about friendship. The seeming opposites of beauty and suffering, of love and self-hatred commingling, not negating each other but orbiting our lives, rising and setting in turn. Never fully retiring though - always there on the other side.

I thought it too a book about hard work and male friendships and friendship in general (taking centre stage, for once, instead of side-kicking romance). I thought it a book about the beauty all around; in architecture, in math, in painting, in philosophy and law, in food and plants and music and singing. Beauty - and passage describing that beauty - that could almost be cloying if it were not for the ways we all find to punctuate it with pain of varying degrees.

The pages that made me weep were not the pages of abuse*. They were the pages of tenderness. Of constancy found in wavering thoughts and feelings.

If you read this book, don’t gobble it propelled forward by what happened, what will happen. Go slow and savour the present moments of beauty. For me, this is where the book caught my mind and my heart, perhaps changed me even.

*In contrast to Women Talking, I never felt like this book tipped to sensational descriptions of abuse, (disturbing, haunting yes).

2. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall was accurately reviewed as a "short, sharp, shock of a book". I read it breathlessly and turned it over in my mind for days. This is one I'll likely reread. There was something here of early Maggie Nelson (something of Jane, perhaps?) I'm excited about this writer and what she'll go on to do.

3. Once Upon a River: A Novel by Diane Setterfield

I need a certain amount of escape in my reading. Not from every book, but I need it in the mix. A little magic, the sort of improbable symmetry you get in Dickens and so many of the classics. Once Upon a River: A Novel filled that gap for me. This book was a lovely escape, read at the perfect time.

4. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

Ahhh Angel. I loved her pompous obliviousness, her assurance she was destined for better.

Elizabeth Taylor is a dab hand. One moment, she's serving Angel with the biting twinkle of Jane Austen, the next with the deep, cooling empathy of George Eliot. In those latter moments, Angel reminded me of Middlemarch's Causabon — a character I despised in youth but have felt more poignant and sympathetic towards on every reread. I'm glad I read Angel now, at this age.

This book predates any references to Grey Gardens, but there's something of this kind of wonder in it too towards the end. A completely satisfying read.

5. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

I went into Days Without End not expecting to love it. I was craving a voice and style that had more poetry in it and I knew Sebastian Barry would deliver that (maybe too lavishly, as he sometimes does). But the description of the story left me indifferent. I imagine we all feel at times that we have enough "America" in the news. It's not a time I feel drawn to engage with its history.

But perhaps it was Barry's very lyricism that saved this book. Were it plainer, were it less melodic, it would have been brutal to read. Instead it became a staggering read, the heady language carrying the reader aloft, above the gruesomeness, rendering the implausible plausible and the hideous strangely mesmerizing, if not beautiful.

6. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

A book I loved while reading it, Unsheltered was another book I initially didn't have much appetite for. I honestly can't remember what made me decide to start it regardless (maybe a recommendation?) but I'm glad I did. The to and fro, past to present made me think anew about what we're going through, its echoes in time. But, while it was a fast favourite as I finished, the book itself hasn't left much of an echo with me.

7. My Brilliant Friend 

8. The Story of a New Name

9. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay 

10. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Reading Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child) made for a memorable winter, where I was happy to soak in Neapolitan sun.

This was deep immersion in another world that felt consuming at the time. Now, with some distance, the impact has lessened significantly. These are unlikely to be books I'll reread. But I enjoyed occupying their pages and picturing and thinking about the lives within.

(Another bonus of the Kindle: I didn't have to think about these hideous covers!)

11. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

As I was reading Reservoir 13, I thought a lot about Under Milk Wood. The voices were almost audible to me at times and the rhythm of shifting perspectives kept me interested but also a little adrift, bobbing on the ocean of a town I wasn't part of, clasping at identities and back stories. It was finely wrought and a pleasure to the mind.

But there was a humour missing for me too. I weirdly kept transplanting the story to Ireland and imagining the glinting humour it would take on in that setting (an unusual and perhaps unfair way to read a book, but I couldn't stop the thought occurring). And so it left me wanting more warmth, more humour, occasions of a twinkly eye or a suppressed smile. Just wanting more humanity.

12. Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Women Talking felt like the kind of book one ought to read right now. The "Mennonite me too" as it's been called.

While I was recently off work, recovering from a major surgery, I couldn't handle anything too "real". I would turn off the radio when it turned to coverage of war crimes, or rape or abuse (or all three). And I found myself wondering about the importance of bearing witness versus protecting oneself from what you can reasonably handle.

Women Talking was, at times, more than I could reasonably handle. The book, like the topic it covers, is a complex quilt. I questioned constantly why I didn't just abandon it (something I've become more comfortable giving myself permission to do). But by the end, I was glad I didn't.

13. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women is a collection of finely written stories that I admired while reading but never quite lost myself inside. I never lost the awareness that I was reading and, although it's just occurring to me as I type, that seems a requirement for me to love something.

14. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage was a solid page-turner that I could easily imagine being turned into a Netflix mini-series. There was absolutely nothing wrong with this book, but absolutely nothing that gripped me either.

15. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant played a perfect role for me between two really good books (further up the list) that I needed a buffer between. Sometimes the difficult thing about continuously reading is coming off something that feels massive and wondering where to go next. This gave me something to read without asking anything in return.

16. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I'm always a little wary when there's an effusive pile-on when I start new book. Maybe that's me being a jerk but in the case of Life After Life I just was left scratching my head. The book felt cold, the characters veneer thin; roles rather than people. I kept waiting for the clever temporal hook to sink deeper. For me, it never did. And because of that, it ended up boring me.

17. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Okay we have 3 in a row here that I'm going to say the same thing about in essence: I didn't get it. Conversations with Friends was obviously good. And it's always lovely to be back in Dublin. But I felt too old for it. I felt the way I felt when I tried to watch Girls and instead missed something way more earnest (though, if I'm truthful, also way more dishonest).

That said, there was something more here. I want to keep my eye on Rooney. I'm not sure if/when I'll read Ordinary People. But I'm interested in what her writing will become with more time.

18. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

I will simply say that I did not feel any of the things so many people felt about My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Don't take my word for it, I feel like it just wasn't for me.

19. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I love what Boy, Snow, Bird was setting out to do. Everything points to a book I'll adore. But its execution was just too heavy-handed for me.

P.S. If you want to keep up with what I'm reading right now, Instagram is the best place to follow me (I post in stories what I'm starting and some thoughts when I finish).

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