It was a pretty good reading year for me, though once again it didn’t always feel that way as I was living it. My main impetus to get back to blogging more regularly is that I want to reflect on and and engage with my reading better.
Here are (some of) this year’s highlights/most memorable reading experiences, organized more or less by thematic connections I made between them:
Milkman, by Anna Burns, was last year’s Man Booker winner, and I thought it as a 2018 read until I looked over my reading year at Goodreads. (2019 was a looooong year, and February feels at least 5 years ago). I’m still thinking about this novel, remarkable both for its style and for its depiction of a young woman’s life in the Troubles and the constraints imposed by living in the midst of conflict.
I followed the thread of the Troubles to Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing on audiobook, which also focuses a lot of its attention on women. It deserved its place on many year-end best books lists.
Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall was another favorite novel that depicts a young woman whose life is constrained by the threat of violence. What makes these stories memorable and engrossing, of course, is not that fact but the way the characters resist the attempts to control them, struggling to define themselves and find spaces for freedom and self-definition. Both the narrator of Milkman and Moss’s Silvie do that in memorable ways.
One of the last books I read this year, Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, explores these themes in the lives of young black women in early 20th-century America. What I said on Goodreads: “I learned about Saidiya Hartman when she won a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius” grant) this year. This book is fascinating, focusing on young black women moving to Northern cities in the early 20th century and trying to find some freedom in their intimate lives, even as they were relentlessly policed—arrested and confined on the mere suspicion that they might be, or might become, sex workers, for instance—and the “color line” of segregation closed them in.
Hartman’s methods make the book very readable. She finds many of her subjects in photographs and in the archives of reformatories and social workers, as they are defined by a censorious white gaze. Hartman fills in the gaps of these lives with speculative narratives—what might these women have dreamed of? What space could they make for their hopes in the narrow confines of their lives?
This is history I knew almost nothing about, beautifully written and engrossing.”
Hartman’s book rounded off a thread of excellent books by and about black women I read this year. That includes a trio of debut novels I read on summer vacation, of which Queenie has been most memorable. It’s interesting counterpoint to the kind of chick lit I sometimes read, but have been likely lately to abandon as unsatisfactorily shallow–not because of a romantic happy ending per se, but I guess because of how everything seems governed by the conventions leading to that ending. Queenie surprised me, but I can imagine a more romantic book doing the same. I just haven’t found one lately.
And then there was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, this year’s Booker winner (co, but let’s not talk about that). This novel weaves together the stories of 12 black British women of different generations and backgrounds; each is the focus of one chapter, but their lives touch each other in ways that increasingly enrich the novel the further you read. There’s such a variety of stories and relationships here–mothers, daughters, friends, lovers, artists, cleaners, bankers. Men and white people are largely pushed to the margins of the story, and reading it you feel how rarely that is the case. I absolutely loved this book, one of my very favorites of the year.
(There was also a fun-for-me allusion to Sam Seldon’s Lonely Londoners, as one of the characters reads this classic immigrant novel with her book group, ironically after she has returned to Barbados in retirement. I read Seldon’s book earlier this year because one of the characters in Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City is named for him. Now I’m wondering where else I might follow that thread).
My genre reading this year was mostly mystery. I didn’t really make any new discoveries there, but I did enjoy the Dick Francis audio binge I went on in August and September. Sometimes new discoveries aren’t what you need. Oh wait–you could count Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series (three so far), which are m/m-romantic suspense-with werewolves, in case one genre isn’t enough for you. That is the most pure genre-reading fun I’ve had in ages, and I hope to have more experiences like that next year.
I kept up my poetry reading, too, and my favorite there was Ada Limòn, whose collections Bright Dead Things and The Carrying I read and loved this year. “Instructions on Not Giving Up” became a touchstone for me in some dark days this spring.
What About 2020?
I have lots of ideas about what I might do with my reading next year, but only one firm plan: to use the library less. I know that sounds weird, but I don’t mean buying more books (or I don’t necessarily mean that). I mean put fewer on hold. There were a number of times this year when a lot of holds came in at once–yes, I can pause holds, but sometimes they had been “on order” a long time and I didn’t get warning they were coming–and I couldn’t get to everything, or they felt like a chore, or I wasn’t in the mood when they arrived. If I want to remember a book, I’ll put it on my wishlist, and request it when it’s likely to show up fairly soon. Maybe I’ll make it to the main library branch more often, where browsing the shelves is more likely to yield something I want to read than at my tiny branch.
As for the things I might do? Well, if I decide to do them, I’ll try to tell you about them.