This Year In Books (Part I)

Books in a bookshop window

I adore books – their tidy spines and floppy covers, the rustle of pages turning between my fingertips, even their smell – almost as much as I love reading itself. It’s not an exaggeration to assert that I never feel more myself than when curled up with a book in bed. For me, reading is not so much an escape as a return; to the earliest sense of self I ever had, picking out storybooks from the library at the end of our street.

I made it my resolution to read fifty books in 2016, having regressed somewhat in 2015 (thanks, I wrote at the close of year last, to “plenty of travel, the surprise of falling in love, burgeoning friendships, regular meltdowns about the direction of my twenty-somethings and the odd bit of work, too, I promise, all at the frenetic pace of London life”). But of course, time doesn’t slow down in its unceasing onward course; like a river, it only seems to speed up as it heads downstream.

A new, more demanding job didn’t help and many evenings where I might have been reading I spent proofreading in my office above the pulsing artery of the Strand, closing my tired eyes on the tube home, my book left spine uncracked in the rucksack at my feet. Still, I can’t complain – I read at least 36 books and I know, this year more than I ever, how lucky I am to have easy access to libraries, to bookshops and pennies in my pocket to pick and choose what I might tuck into next. Three books a month sounds a pretty fine rate to me. Perhaps I’ll strive for four a month in 2017 – or perhaps, more than any number plucked from thin air, I’ll strive to always be reading, to always have a book on the go, to never be without one in my bag (Rory Gilmore, you’d be proud), to always pick words in print, not the newspaper linked to the shadowy screen of my phone.

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These are the books I read this year. The best I’ve summarised with a line or two of explanation and/or rhapsody. What did you most enjoy reading this year? I am, like all inveterate bookworms, always hunting for my next this-changed-my-life read.

1 ⤜ When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
The ‘it’ book of last winter and every bit deserving of that title. I eagerly anticipated the release of this one and read it in just a few sittings after it arrived on its publication date. It’s heart-breaking, naturally, but also written in elegant, sharp prose – some of the best I’ve ever read from a modern author – and yes, I did cry into its final pages on the 94 bus on a dark night in Notting Hill. I’m almost crying remembering how sad, and good, and true, and necessary this book was. (I saw Lucy Kalanithi, Paul’s widow, talk in Hampstead early last year, too. She is beyond inspiring, and if you ever have the chance to listen to her speak, grab it and run.)

2 ⤜ The Only Street In Paris, by Elaine Sciolino
I do love the idea of Paris – nibbling on a crusty baguette while strolling through the verdant grounds of Versailles, sipping a glass of Beaujolais in the plush window seat of a pavement café, bumping into Hemingway lookalikes in Shakespeare and Co, picnicking (quiche Lorraine, macarons, all the clichés) in the ivory shadow of Montmartre. I think that’s why I picked up this book, a non-fiction hardback with a beautiful cover photograph of the Rue des Martyrs, in Daunt last winter and promptly devoured it in the course of a week. Interesting to see Paris from a resident’s perspective and Sciolino expertly weaves in historical, cultural and political tidbits that make this a real gem of a book.

3 ⤜ 13 Ways Of Looking, by Colum McCann
The novella that gives this story collection its name begins with a ferocious blizzard in New York. A retired judge is walking down the street when he is attacked, brutally, and later dies from the consequences. It draws on McCann’s own experience of physical assault in the city and that shows. The descriptions were incredibly vivid, a true masterpiece of the form. If you’re new to McCann, start with Transatlantic. A real heart-thumper of a novel.

4 ⤜ Do No Harm, by Henry Marsh
Do you sense a theme? I’m bizarrely (perhaps, for a magazine journalist-cum-translator) fascinated with the workings of the human body and brain so this journey into the world of a London neurosurgeon was right up my street. Terrifying (how much there is to go wrong!) and uplifting (how much doctors can these days fix!) in equal measure. Plenty of blood, gore, science and ruminations on the NHS. I’ll be a doctor in my next life.

5 ⤜ Dept of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
Unlike any novel I’ve read before or since, this brief tome charts the life of a marriage in sharp, quirky fragments of barbed, apposite prose. There’s something of the fairytale-ish about it, with references to characters as ‘the mother’, ‘the daughter’ and a broad-stroked, abstract narrative voice. I’ve got her first novel Last Things in my bedside drawer, next up.

6 ⤜ Simple Matters, by Erin Boyle
Eco-minded decluttering tips and simple living advice from the author of the lovely green-living blog Reading My Tea Leaves. I go back to my copy often for suggestions on how to live with less stuff and more experience; and for ways to live a life a little kinder on our environment.

7 ⤜ Love Like Salt: A Memoir, by Helen Stevenson
An odd, captivating autobiography of a mother’s life with a sickly child. Often descends into magical realism (strangely, for a memoir) but I raced through it, and loved it against all the odds.

8 ⤜ The Innocent, by Ian McEwan
Nabbed from my father-out-law’s bookshelf and read in almost a single sitting; there’s something of the thriller to this cold war epic. A must read for McEwan fans.

9 ⤜ The End Of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck

10 ⤜ Someone, by Alice McDermott
A re-read (for the umpteenth time) and still one of my most beloved novels, ever.

Reading book by Elizabeth Strout

11 ⤜ My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
Not what I expected from the blurb but still an indisputable page-turner despite the protagonist lying ill in hospital for much of the novel. For some reason, I love novels about the Midwestern United States – the husks of corn crackling with growth, the open plains, the quiet backroads leading to nowhere – and this one, also set partly in New York, did not disappoint.

12 ⤜ The Narrow Road To The Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

13 ⤜ My Life In Houses, by Margaret Forster
Margaret Forster’s internal monologue sounds a lot like my own, if her books are anything to go by, and I adored her thoughts on what makes a home, how buildings affect our wellbeing and the way we so often link our identities to where we live. There has been some criticism of this 2014 book’s somewhat whimsical focus on housing (Can we afford to move from our lovely semi-detached in Tufnell Park to Hampstead, where we feel we truly belong?) given London’s current housing crisis, but I think it’s important to remember that Forster was of a different generation and grew up in a council house. Regardless, it’s a lovely romp through Forster’s many abodes – and life – and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

14 ⤜ The Course of Love, by Alain de Botton
I really loved Botton’s first (and only other) novel Essays In Love, as I rhapsodised on here, so I had high hopes for his new offering. Sadly, it wasn’t for me – while the philosophical insights were as interesting as hoped, I found the tone slightly condescending. The characters as they were portrayed at the start later went on to act in ways that didn’t seem to fit their temperaments. It wasn’t a terrible read, by any means, but as a card-carrying hopeless romantic, its cynicism didn’t appeal.

15 ⤜ The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

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16 ⤜ I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Nora Ephron

17 ⤜ Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande
I am utterly helpless before a hefty tome of medical non-fiction (as discussed) – odd for someone who’s barely been ill a day in her life. Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Rebecca Skloot – they have wooed and won me all. Being Mortal is a fascinating rumination on ageing – specifically, good ageing and good death – written in erudite prose.

18 ⤜ Notes On Being Teenage, by Rosalind Jana

Part II (and 18 more reads) to come tomorrow! What have you read and loved – or loathed – this year?