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!

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(Head)room of One’s Own

Virginia 1Last year I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, and I find myself still pondering her words today. Although it was first published in 1929, so much of what Woolf wrote rings true ninety years later: it is a feminist manifesto, delivered gently yet powerfully, bringing the place of women in literature and society into laser-sharp focus.

I’ve mulled Woolf’s words over. I’ve disappeared down various rabbitholes as her words and life have cropped up in other books I have read, most notably in Drusilla Modjeska’s beautifully written memoir Second Half First. I’ve read more of Woolf’s own works, including the brilliantly conceived and executed Mrs Dalloway. I’m planning on re-reading The Waves and To The Lighthouse, volumes I have not delved into since my university days.

And yet, despite all this investigation, I am still struggling with Woolf’s central premise in A Room of One’s Own:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I firmly believe Woolf’s statement to be true.

But what, I wonder, would she make of women’s lives in the twenty first century?  Ninety years after the publication of A Room of One’s Own, many things have improved for women in the western world.  Our access to education has improved, along with our employment prospects and our control of our own lives and bodies.

What I think women in the western world have lost control of, however, is our minds.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I would love to embrace this idea as a true representation of my self and my life, to punch my fist skyward and proclaim that my mind is entirely my own, that my freedom is guaranteed because I am not shackled by cerebral restrictions.

But I can’t.

Not quite.

I may have money I earn myself and a place to write (even if it is not an actual room), but do I have space in my own head?

There is just so much…stuff…to remember in any given day.

Remember to schedule a dental appointment. Drop off the dry cleaning. Pick up forgotten ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Replace a child’s gluestick for school. Sign permission slips for an excursions. Meet a work deadline. Return the library books on time. Change the bedclothes. Find light blue cardboard for a child’s project (no, not dark blue or royal blue or navy blue). Collect that undelivered parcel from the post office. Arrange a playdate before netball training and remember to buy oranges for the game. Pay the gas bill. Replace yet another gluestick (what, do they eat them or something?). Phone the electrician to get the laundry light fitting replaced. Feed the fish. And the cat. And the family. Buy a present for an upcoming birthday party. And a card. Take out the garbage and know which bin needs to be curbside on which day. Update the credit card expiration date on — wait, what was the password for that account again?

Virginia 2Our lives are so full, and are lived at such a relentless pace. We bandy around words and phrases like “mindfulness” and “mental load”, but do we ever have time to stop — let alone to imagine?

How can we write fiction if we have no headroom to allow the stories to form? How can ideas flow and characters develop and whole realms emerge from such cluttered minds?

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I know my own fiction writing is informed, in part, by the life I lead — regardless of whether I am writing a children’s picture book, a longer story for older children, or working on the young adult novel I have been aiming to finish for some years.

Much of the time, however, my fictional projects lie immobile, suspended in that spider’s web as I attend to the myriad minutiae of everyday life that encroach upon it from all four corners. And more often than not, my own innate need to create is ignored in favour of other, far more basic needs — not just of my own — and it is not until I sense my fictional worlds are hanging by a single thread that I make time to write.

Virginia 3Even so, I remain hopeful.

I would rather snatch a moment here and there to write a paragraph, to edit a word or two, or to scribble down a new idea than to fill my pockets with stones and walk into the nearest river.

I am learning, slowly, to prioritise my fiction writing, even if it is — by definition — not real.

Because it is real to me, and gives my life deeper meaning.

And despite her own untimely end (which I may comprehend, but cannot ever condone), I think Virginia Woolf knew exactly what it was like not to have room in her head. Even so, in spite of this — or perhaps because of it — I believe she would have continued to encourage women generally, and writers particularly, had she lived to see our present day and age, just as she did in her lifetime.

Money is one thing, I think she would tell us.

But the room of one’s own — that sacred space needs to exist in your mind as well as in your world.

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.

VIRGINIA WOOLF