2019 in Books | January
After a few years of not really reading all that much I’ve got back in the habit of keeping a list of books I’d like to read so that I always have something on the go. As such, I thought I’d start to keep track of the books I read. My secret to reading lots seems to come down to not being afraid to give up on a book I don’t like, and to borrow the majority of my books, which means I then don’t feel compelled to finish them if I don’t like them, I can just return them to the library unread.
Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Despite not warming to any of the main characters in the book, I enjoyed Harmless Like You and read it in a single day on the first of the month as the storytelling is really good and I like the style of writing. Like author Rowan and the character Yuki, I moved a lot as a child (three countries and six moves by the age of twelve). To this day, despite having lived in Birmingham for fourteen years, I still don’t feel like I really belong or ‘come from’ anywhere in particular (my lack of a Birmingham accent gives me away). Rowan writes about that experience and the feeling of being an outsider despite holding citizenship and living in a city for an extended period of time really well.
The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig – Stefan Zweig
Continuing my Zweig binge from last month, I read his collection of novellas. Zweig’s stories are intense, claustrophobic, urgent and full of melodrama with characters invariably reaching for their revolvers or bottles of poison at the barest hint of losing face in society, but I love them because his writing and observations are so beautiful. The recent translations by Anthea Bell make them very readable in modern times, too. I think that his best book is The Post Office Girl, and that Pushkin’s Collected Stories is better than the Collected Novellas. I’ve yet to read his autobiography, although I know in advance that that, too, ends with a bottle of poison.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
Although it took me a couple of nights to really get into the story, by about page 150 I couldn’t put it down. This was helped by a late night train journey home from London after seeing Kevin Devine play the Camden Assembly on the 16th, as our train was delayed by 90 minutes so I had some unexpected reading time on my hands. Do Not Say We Have Nothing paints a sweeping history of China from the late 1940s to the present day (it was published in 2016). It tells the story of two families across three generations, the impact of Mao’s policies on everyday life, and how family history, lore and trauma survive and are passed hand to hand across the generations.
The story closely follows three musicians at Shanghai Conservatory of Music as they come of age during the period of time leading up to and including the Cultural Revolution. It’s beautifully written and I fell in love with the main three characters, so much so that Zhuli’s storyline was particularly hard to read. Western classical music flows through the novel, from Bach to Shostakovich to Debussy, with a particular emphasis on Bach’s Goldberg Variations which the character Sparrow is obsessed with from a very young age. I really enjoyed reading this book, and it’s left me wanting to read more about 20th century China. This is also a book that has stayed with me after I finished it, as the characters are so brilliantly written that they feel like real people.
Such Small Hands – Andrés Barba
A very short, strange little book. Originally written in Spanish, it’s been translated into English and I wonder if that might be the reason why I didn’t find it quite as dark or creepy as many of the reviews I read suggested it would be, perhaps something has been lost in translation. That said, maybe my threshold for weird is just different. Such Small Hands tells the story of a seven year old girl called Marina, orphaned in a car crash which she survives, and her complicated relationship with the other girls at the orphanage she is moved to after she recovers from her injuries.
The short length of the book keeps things tense, and there are some really good scenes captured within its 100 pages, including one where the view continuously shifts from Marina poking a poisonous caterpillar with a stick to the group of girls circling around her, ever closer, as she kills it, to a conversation between Marina and her child psychologist. It’s really clever writing, and kept me turning pages. Such Small Hands is also a very accurate portrayal of childhood and the games children play, I was just hoping that it would be scarier than it was.
Fever Dream – Samantha Schweblin
This is a book that if it had been any longer, I wouldn’t have bothered to finish. I didn’t like the writing style, didn’t like the characters, and the story doesn’t go anywhere. The reason I did finish it was that I thought that the plot must develop at some point as it has so many good reviews and was even nominated for the Booker, but it doesn’t. I don’t mind books that are light on plot so long as the character development is strong, or the prose is beautiful, but Fever Dream doesn’t tick either of those boxes. Oh well. Win some, lose some.
Audubon, on the Wings of the World – Fabien Grolleau
Audobon, on the Wings of the World is a romanticised illustrated biography of the life and work of John James Audubon, an artist and ornithologist who made his name in the early 19th century. I really liked the illustrations and the way the captions told his story, whilst gently mocking him for his arrogance, single mindedness and barbarity. I didn’t like the subject matter too much due to the animal cruelty (he shoots all of the birds he paints) and his racism (which is alluded to, but the authors and illustrators are keen to point out that that’s a whole other book’s worth of discussion), but it is true to the times it describes.
This was an impulse borrow when I was browsing the stacks at the library and found the Graphic Novels trolley in a new spot. It’s beautifully illustrated which was one of the reasons it captured my attention as I was walking by. I’ve never really got into comics or graphic novels as I thought the extent of them was just DC and Marvel, and I’m not really into superhero stories, but I will be exploring more graphic novels in the coming months now that I realise that the genre is much more varied than that. Who knows, I might even brave the comic book store in town!
Maus I – Art Spiegelman
I’d read good things about Maus, and knew it to be a classic within the genre, but wasn’t prepared for how emotional it would be. I didn’t think that an illustrated biography could be so personal, so intense and so harrowing, but it is all of those things and more. Maus tells the story of the illustrator and author’s Jewish father Vladek in 1930s Poland, culminating in his arrival at Auschwitz in 1944.
The captions and storytelling are so effective, partly because of the retention of Vladek’s imperfect English and the second storyline of Art and Vladek’s complicated relationship in later life. I could only find Maus I in the library when I went in, but I can’t wait to read part II. It’s one of the best books I’ve read about the Holocaust as the format makes the story feel so immediate, personal and real.
Supercrash – Darryl Cunningham
A graphic novel about finance! This was brilliant. It’s very difficult to write about finance or politics without being biased by one’s own political views, but despite this I felt the book was well balanced in its account and explanation of the events leading up to and following the global financial crash of 2008. There are also plenty of sources stuffed into an appendix at the back, supporting the figures and claims made throughout the book.
The format and approach of a graphic novel is brilliant for making what is a dry, acronym filled topic accessible to non-experts and Darryl pulls back the curtain on the mechanisms and practices which led to the crash. My overwhelming feeling is one of anger. Anger that high stakes gambling in the private sector resulted in austerity for the masses but very little long-term change within the banking sector. It was published in 2014 and as such doesn’t touch on the rise of Trump or the current Brexit debate; topics which I would love to see included if an updated version is ever in the works.