2019 in Books

At last…the third and final instalment in my Top Five’s for 2019 has arrived — books, beautiful books!

2019 was always going to be a tough year in books for me, because 2018 was the year when Boy Swallows Universe usurped Dirt Music as my favourite book of all time.

So this year, instead of seeking out works of fiction that might make me change my mind yet again (because — as we now know Patrick Melrose would say — that’s what a mind is for, after all), I opted for to throw some non-fiction in with my usual reading escapes…and was more than pleasantly surprised.

I also read a few classics of English literature, one of which begins this, my humble list:

1. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

Mrs DMrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

It’s one the great opening lines in literature, and somehow evokes the quiet control Virginia Woolf exercises over each and every character in this slim and beautiful novel. I’ve long been interested in Woolf, and am so pleased I found time to read this novel this year.

Taking place over the course of a single day, Woolf takes the reader back and forward in time, from one character’s perspective to another, making us privy to their innermost thoughts about that day and its events, and of the other characters. Only in books do we have this power: to know the internal dialogue and register the emotional barometer of another (albeit fictional) person.

It is staggering to me that Woolf managed to deal with themes such as religion and secularism, mental health, sexuality and feminism in the space of so few pages. This is stream of consciousness writing at its finest, and is as relevant today as it would have been on the June day in 1923 it describes.

2. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)

TCThe subtitle of this brilliant piece of non-fiction is “One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster”, but not even these words begin to sum up Sandra Pankhurst and her astonishing progression from abused child, to husband and father, to drag queen and sex reassignment patient, to sex worker, businesswoman, trophy wife…the list goes on.

I had heard rumours and rumblings about this book for a couple of years. Not surprisingly, given the quality of Krasnostein’s writing, it has won a whole swag of awards, but I was honestly unprepared for the impact it would have on me. It was not that I was reading about someone who cleans up crime scenes, horders’ houses, and squalor so sordid it is almost possible to smell it coming off the page, it was the emotional wallop of Pankhurst’s own life story, interleaved with chapters about her clients and the tenderness — yes, tenderness — with which she deals with them.

Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.

SARAH KRASNOSTEIN

Krasonstein’s treatment of the slippery nature of memory and truth is masterful, and her frank admissions about the issues and memories her interactions with Pankhurst and her clients raise for her are, to my mind, courageous. It is impossible to read this book — and I could not put it down once I began — without having your breath taken away.

This is also a book that will  leave you thinking, hard, about things you never expected to, for a very long time.

3. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019)

DJ6Whoa…we need to head back to Fictionland after that one, hey?

Well, what better way to do that than with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six? Weirdly, upon reflection, this book also deals with memory and truth as much as The Trauma Cleaner does, though in a fictional setting. Set in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, the book poses as an oral history trying to get to the bottom of a rock’n’roll puzzle — what made Daisy Jones and the Six, one of the decade’s most successful bands, split up straight after playing the final concert of their tour in 1979?

The writing style reminded me of Lizzy Goodman’s brilliant non-fiction work Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011, a huge tome chronicling the rise of bands like The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem and The National. Being fiction, however, Daisy Jones and the Six lets you invest yourself in the characters, allows the reader to take sides without fear of any recrimination, and to enjoy the twist that comes towards the end. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

4. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)

CofGI was not expecting to include this book in my Top Five for the year, but have done so because it proved to be a rollicking good read and, in my opinion, the best piece of fiction Elizabeth Gilbert has produced in years. Unlike The Signature of All Things, which I found to be overwhelmingly populated by caricatures, City of Girls bursts at the seams with the colourful characters encountered by Vivian Morris from the time she moves to Manhattan as a nineteen year old after being kicked out of college.

Gilbert vividly recreates the theare and showgirl scene in New York City in the 1940s, and the novel is as much a love story to the city as it is the story of Vivian navigating her way through life and love, to recount it as a ninety-five year old narrator. This book is a great escape, not to mention a fascinating examination of how important it is to be free to be yourself.

5. How To Raise Successful People by Esther Wojcicki (2019)

SPI bought this book after hearing Esther Wojcicki interviewed on a podcast and read it cover to cover in an afternoon. Wojcicki draws on her experiences raising three highly successful children (all women who have risen to the top of typically male-dominated professions) and teaching generations of Media Arts students at Palo Alto High School, and also reflects on how her childhood informed the choices she made as a parent.

It’s partly a parenting manifesto, partly a practical advice manual, and a lot of what Wojcicki has to say makes a great deal of sense to me. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this was definitely a book that gave me much to think about — not to mention implement in my life — this year.

Honourable Mentions this year go two other non-fiction titles, Drusilla Modjeska’s beautiful and evocative memoir Second Half First and to Melinda Gates’ highly thought-provoking book about empowering women, The Moment of Lift.

On the fiction front, Max Porter’s novella Grief is a Thing With Feathers very nearly made my Top Five for its emotional bravery and poetic brilliance. I am yet to read Lanny but hope to get my hands on a copy in 2020. I also thoroughly enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and will admit to spending a week devouring the entire Cormoran Strike series, penned by Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling), with something akin to glee. I was a late-comer to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and loved it, and am looking forward to reading her next book, The Starless Sea, this year.

So that’s all folks! I read a whole lot of other books during the year that were also noteworthy and interesting, but these were the ones that made the cut for 2019.

That said, I have just trawled my local library for a substantial summer reading stash and have kicked off with the Julia Baird’s so-far brilliant biography of Queen Victoria…it may well make my 2020 list!

If you have enjoyed this post from Blue Jai Creative and would like every new musing from the Daydream Believer delieved straight to your inbox, feel free to click on the Follow button at the top right of the page. Thanks for reading! BJx

 

 

 

The Well-Daemoned Creative

EudaimoniaThe Ancient Greeks, it seems to me, knew stuff.

Lots of stuff.

Especially the sort of stuff that goes on inside human heads. In fact, thousands of years ago, they had sorted out more stuff than I can even imagine (and, as Han Solo once said to Luke Skywalker, I can imagine a quite a bit).

And they also had words for things to explain just how well they understood stuff — amazing words like eudaimonia. Sure, it might be a bit of mouthful to the average English speaking Joe or Jai, but when I discovered the word (this morning, straight after the courier delivered a parcel of books to my front door), I felt those teeny tiny hairs on the back of my neck rise. In a good way, people.

Eudaimonia translates as “human flourishing”, and was used in ancient Greece to describe the highest degree of happiness, a state of being characterised by not only by happiness itself, but also by health and prosperity. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But it’s the etymology of the word that gives my inner geek the tingles: it comes from the Greek words eu, meaning ‘good’ and daimon, meaning ‘guardian spirit’. And the exciting part, as Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her book Big Magic, is that when you put those words together you get “well-daemoned”, or “nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide”. (And, yes, you now have to imagine me delivering my best Molly Meldrum impression when I tell you to do yourself a favour and get a copy of Big Magic…it’s an absorbing read).

But, as usual, I digress — let’s get back to eudaimonia. The idea that creative inspiration is something external to one’s self is not unique to the Greeks. The Romans, those other giants of the ancient world, also externalised the concept. As Gilbert says:

The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius — your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.

In this ego-driven twenty-first century world, the ancient perspective is remarkably refreshing: that creativity is bestowed, by a genius the artist might be obliged to thank for the inspiration. Or, conversely, should the artist’s work be found somehow lacking, the same genius could be called upon to take some of the blame. Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it, creative types? Pesky old ego is removed from the equation…and, in Gilbert’s words once again, the artist is protected: “Protected from the corrupting influence of praise. Protected from the corrosive effects of shame.”

Inside JobBut there is a catch.

(You know there always is).

In order to get close to anything resembling eudaimonia, this highest level of human happiness, you have to do the hard yards too. It’s not as simple as having some Jiminy Cricket-like muse sitting on your shoulder telling you what to do — there’s not much point in having an external creative spirit guiding your creative pursuits if you don’t actively pursue them. Not surprisingly, human flourishing doesn’t just happen: it demands that we show up, that we find time, that we live authentically — in alignment with those things that make us our best selves.

 

AristotleAnyone who creates regularly and deliberately will tell you that yes, there are those fabled golden moments when whatever you are creating flows from you effortlessly. They are magical moments, and I do mean that literally. But the point is you have to be there, already creating, for those moments to happen. And no one can do that for you. You have to have the courage to do it for yourself.

It’s about following your passion, in whatever small moments are available to you. It’s about discovering, as Aristotle suggested, where the needs of the world and your talents intersect, and finding your vocation. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not advocating chucking in your job, leaving your family or withdrawing from society to pursue the creative: my strong suspicion is that you can’t get close to eudaimonia unless you’re actively involved in all those things, and in whatever you are inspired to create.

So find the time, if you can, to do what makes your soul sing.

ScrapsListen to that funny little guardian spirit — the one who has either been waiting patiently for you, or has been yammering away at you to do something for so long that it might just fall off your shoulder in shock when you finally pick up that paintbrush, or write that poem, or sew that dress.

Let’s honour creativity and make it an essential part of our lives — for our happiness, health and prosperity.

Let’s be more than humans being.

Let’s become humans flourishing.