2019 Top Ten

Last 2019-related post – my best reads of last year!

  1. Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)
  2. Florida by Lauren Groff (2018)
  3. There, There by Tommy Orange (2018)
  4. The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (2018)
  5. The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro (1982)
  6. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (2018)
  7. I’m Fine, But You Appear To Be Sinking by Leyna Krow (2017)
  8. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (2017)
  9. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)
  10. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (2014)

Let me know your best reads of 2019 in the comments!

Books Read in 2019

  1. Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)
  2. The Needle’s Eye by Margaret Drabble (1972)
  3. See What Can Be Done by Lorrie Moore (2018)
  4. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (2018)
  5. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)
  6. Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara (1972)
  7. The Only Story by Julian Barnes (2018)
  8. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller (2018)
  9. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)
  10. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (2018)
  11. Feel Free by Zadie Smith (2018)
  12. Florida by Lauren Groff (2018)
  13. Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar (2018)
  14. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1967)
  15. There, There by Tommy Orange (2018)
  16. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (2018)
  17. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018)
  18. The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (2018)
  19. Lost Boy by Christina Henry (2017)
  20. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2013)
  21. Eleanor Olifant is Completely Fine (2017)
  22. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009)
  23. The Outlander by Gil Adamson (2007)
  24. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)
  25. Day by A.L. Kennedy (2007)
  26. The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro (1982)
  27. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)
  28. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (2016)
  29. Gingerbread by Robert Dinsdale (2014)
  30. Arcadia by Lauren Groff (2012)
  31. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (2017)
  32. Runaway by Alice Munro (2006)
  33. Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (2009)
  34. The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi (1990)
  35. All That Man Is by David Szalay (2016)
  36. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (2016)
  37. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006)
  38. The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro (2006)
  39. Little Exiles by Robert Dinsdale (2013)
  40. A Pair of Sharp Eyes by Kat Armstrong (2019)
  41. Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre (2012)
  42. His Monkey Wife by John Collier (1930)
  43. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)
  44. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)
  45. Solar by Ian McEwan (2010)
  46. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017)
  47. You Are Having a Good Time by Aimee Barrodale (2016)
  48. I’m Fine, But You Appear To Be Sinking by Leyna Krow (2017)
  49. Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro (1974)
  50. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)
  51. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)
  52. The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)
  53. The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson (2015)
  54. What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (2017)
  55. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
  56. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (2018)
  57. Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra (trans. 2016)
  58. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (2017)
  59. Our Town and Other Plays by Thornton Wilder (this edition 2016)
  60. Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters (1915)
  61. The Waves by Virgina Woolf (1931)
  62. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)
  63. Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999)
  64. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (2013)
  65. Where All Light Tends To Go by David Joy (2015)
  66. The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg (2016)
  67. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919)
  68. Cape May by Chip Cheek (2019)
  69. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney (2017)
  70. The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015)
  71. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (2014)
  72. Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (2006)
  73. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (2012)
  74. Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (2019)

Book titles in bold come highly recommended with the Ellie seal of approval!

December 2019 Reading: Winesburg, Ohio; Cape May; Conversations With Friends; The Green Road; All My Puny Sorrows; Disobedience; Hope: A Tragedy; Late in the Day

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

This book really belongs with ‘Small Town November,’ and it contrasts nicely with Flagg’s novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, which was my last November read. In many ways it is the total opposite of Flagg’s book, prioritising depth over entertainment, with no hint of frivolity. Subtitled ‘A Group of Tales of Small-Town Ohio Life’, it does read more like a collection of short stories which hang together than a novel, though the central recurring character of George Willard, the young reporter, links the book together.

Characters recurr and are explained in greater depth each time they appear, which builds up a picture of the inhabitants of Winesburg in a realistic, nuanced way. The plot is hard to pin down, which adds to the realism of small town life. The sombre, unassuming tone took me a while to get used to, especially after the unbridled exuberance of Flagg’s novel, but this book quietly grew on me, and I found myself quite moved by it in the end.

Cape May by Chip Cheek (2019)

I bought this book after hearing the author talking on a podcast about how he was writing a different, more ‘serious’ novel, but this love story kept distracting him, and finally he gave in and wrote the story that was calling out to him. Set in the 1950’s, a young couple, Henry and Effie, go to Cape May for their honeymoon. It is out of season, and the vibrant place of Effie’s childhood memories is shuttered and somewhat bleak; they almost decide to cut their two week trip short, but then they meet Clara and her glamorous acquaintances and get sucked into their world.

This book is a booze-soaked, sexy, slightly over-the-top interlude from real life, filled with debauched parties, sexual exploration and many, many cocktails. I enjoyed the book as a guilty pleasure, even as I found the young protagonists’ transformation from shy virgins to sexually liberated hedonists in a couple of weeks a little far-fetched. Probably best read on a beach rather than in the midst of a British winter, but fun and glitzy in a Gatsby-ish way nonetheless.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney (2017)

This was one of a couple of books I read this month which, while I can admire the great skill of the writer, is, unfortunately, not my cup of tea. The narrator, Frances, has recently broken up with her girlfriend, Bobbi, although they still perform spoken word poetry as a duo. They are on their summer holidays from Trinity College, Dublin, and stumble into the world of the older, more sophisticated couple, Melissa and Nick (echoes of Cape May here). Frances startles herself by entering into an affair with Nick, though she despairs at the cliche of being ‘the other woman’.

The book is dripping with irony, and the characters are both intelligent and interrogative, questioning everyone and everything around them. The self-delusion of the protagonist plays out nicely, and the writing is confident and sophisticated. However, much as I objectively bow to Rooney’s talent and her creation of something that seems new, exciting and different, I found myself unmoved.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015)

A family saga with a difference, this novel is told from a third person perspective, moving between the members of the Madigan family: matriarch Rosaleen, and her four children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna. The plot centres around a Christmas reunion which threatens to be their last in the family home in west Clare, Ireland. The book dips in and out of their lives, from moments in Hanna’s childhood to Dan in 1990’s New York, to Emmet’s life as an aid worker in Mali. In doing this, Enright seems to me to have hit upon something very true about the way that family works, and how the separate lives that its adult members lead never quite come together when they are briefly reunited. The return to childhood that we feel when among our nearest and (possibly) dearest is cleverly exploited here, and it was a poignant read for me at this time of year!

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (2014)

This brave and beautiful novel is narrated by Yoli, whose main struggle (among many) in her adult life is to keep her suicidal sister, Elfrieda, alive. Flashing back to their upbringing in a Canadian Mennonite community and forward to Elf’s time in a psychiatric hospital, the novel manages to be both comic and tragic. Both sisters are fantastic characters; Elf is a famous concert pianist, who feels she has a ‘glass piano’ inside her which may break at any time. Yoli is, on the surface, far more chaotic and far less successful, but she is a fierce and admirable woman in ways she doesn’t even seem to realise, and a pleasure to have as a narrator.

The plot in itself is actually fairly slight: Yoli wonders whether she is wrong in her desire to prevent her sister from the death she craves, and even considers assisting her in her attempts as her friends and family anxiously attend Elf in hospital. However, the book crackles along with an exuberant, open-hearted energy, and handles its sensitive subject matter in a way which is honest, compassionate and, often, very funny.

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (2006)

‘Funny’ is not a word I would use to describe this next novel. While Alderman’s book, set in the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Hendon, provided me with an insight into a community I knew nothing about, the story was not one that will stay with me. Ronit, who has escaped her Orthodox upbringing and now lives in New York, where she is free to embrace her bisexuality, returns to Hendon upon the death of her Rabbi father, to find that his touted successor, her cousin Dovid, is married to a woman with whom Ronit once had a brief relationship. Dovid was, to me, a slightly more interesting character than Ronit, but neither of them really caught my attention, and Alderman’s long descriptions of Jewish customs and scripture seemed heavy-handed at times.

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (2012)

A very different kind of Jewish book, Auslander’s novel is a delightfully satirical and surprising story of a man who discovers that an aged Anne Frank is living in the attic of his newly purchased American farm house (as one reviewer wrote, imagine the agent pitch on that one). Solomon Kugel, the protagonist/anti-hero of the novel, has moved his family to the rural town of Stockton precisely because he is trying to escape the oppressive weight of history, and Stockton is “famous for nothing.” Kugel’s mother, much to his wife’s chagrin, has moved in with them – she is a hilarious character, who imagines she is a Holocaust survivor despite being born in Brooklyn in 1946.

Kugel himself is a fantastic creation – he carries around a notebook to write down possible ‘last words’, swears profusely, and has the kind of terrible luck that leaves you eagerly anticipating his next misadventure. The discovery of ‘Anne Frank’, now an impossibly old and rather disgusting crone secretly living in his attic, is an absurdly brilliant notion – it is hard to convey how Auslander manages to create so much black humour from this situation, so just read the book and enjoy.

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (2019)

I’d hoped to finish my 2019 reading on a high, but sadly this was the third book this month to fall into the “very well written, but not for me” category. Three characters, Christine, Lydia and Alex, who have been friends for thirty years, are thrown into chaos by the death of Lydia’s husband, Zach, the cornerstone of their group. Hadley is an insightful and skilled writer, and the book is very clever, but I just couldn’t get under the skin of any of her characters. Their lives are relentlessly middle-class, full of gallery openings, restoring old buildings, trips to Venice and so on, and to me it all felt a bit self-indulgent. I just couldn’t empathise with any of them – similar to Rooney’s book, the intellect-over-emotion mood just wasn’t my bag.

I’ve got my first reading list for 2020 ready, but am always keen for further suggestions – let me know your best reads of 2019 in the comments, please!

November 2019 Reading: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Plainsong; Shotgun Lovesongs; Where All Light Tends To Go; The Whole Town’s Talking

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)

November’s reading has been a journey through small town America, starting with this beautiful novel set in a mill town in Georgia in the 1930’s. At the centre of the novel is John Singer, a deaf-mute towards whom many of the other characters in the book gravitate. Singer is a brilliant literary creation, mysterious enough to allow both the other characters and the reader to project their own interpretation onto him, warm and sensitive enough to feel genuine affection for. The chapters are divided between third person viewpoints of different figures in the town, from the teenage girl Mick Kelly to diner owner Biff Brannon, as well as outsider Jake Blount and the world-weary Doctor Copeland.

McCullers writes with a light touch; her prose is clean, not unsentimental, but never cloying. Although the book deals with weighty issues such as social injustice, the race divide, war and fascism, the huge themes are writ small, so that their personal effects can be clearly observed. It is hard to believe that McCullers was only in her early 20’s when she wrote this stunning book – the level of talent on display is incredible. It is one of those novels that seems to pierce the heart of the human condition, and a book I will definitely be revisiting.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999)

Another small town, this time the fictional Holt, Colorado. Again, this book uses the interlocking stories of different characters – Tom Guthrie, his sons Bobby and Ike, Victoria Roubideaux, and the McPherson brothers – to build up to a whole picture of life in the town. The epigraph to the novel defines ‘plainsong’ as “unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple or unadorned melody,” and this gives a good description of the book itself. The understated, plain prose is used to tell a story that creeps up on you – there is a quiet confidence to the storytelling that seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

The book, like McCullers’ novel, is unsentimental and yet gentle, and refreshingly un-ironic. It is firmly rooted in the present moment of the story it is narrating – long backstories are not needed here. The sense of the passing of seasons is well done, leaving the reader feeling as if they have indeed spent time immersed in this midwest prairie town.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (2013)

Continuing the small town theme, my next stop was Little Wing in rural Wisconsin. This book came as a sharp contrast to Haruf’s spare novel; Butler’s prose is lush, almost poetic. His five narrators, Hank, Lee, Kip, Ronny and Beth, unfortunately all sounded a bit too similar to me – only Ronny has a bit more personality and idiosyncracy in his first person narration. I do feel that if you are going to use the first person and have multiple narrators, you ought to make something of the different voices.

Lee is a famous musician who returns home to Little Wing from time to time. The other characters in his orbit are all affected by his comings and goings in one way or another. The book contains a LOT of weddings, as well as characters on their way to a wedding which doesn’t actually appear in the book, and I did find myself getting a little bit confused. Despite the poetry of the writing, I never got as strong a sense of Little Wing as I did of Holt and of McCullers’ mill town, and try as I might, I couldn’t muster an awful lot of sympathy for Butler’s characters, either.

Where All Light Tends To Go by David Joy (2015)

Simplifying things a bit, this novel only has one first person narrator, 18 year old Jacob McNeely. ‘Daddy’ is a meth king pin, and his Mama is an addict living in a cabin. At first it seems that Jacob has accepted his fate as the heir to his Daddy’s meth empire, but then he glimpses another chance at a future with his childhood sweetheart, Maggie, and the possibility of escape from this life begins to grow in his mind.

I had one or two small gripes with this novel, firstly that Maggie, whom Jacob orginally broke up with because he didn’t want to drag her down with him, is presented as almost too perfect to be realistic. The ending, while extremely powerful, is also flawed. However, there was much that did impress me in this book, notably the way that Joy handles the violent aspects of his story. Despite its horror, it never feels gratuitous, and Jacob’s reactions are well drawn – he never becomes numbed to the trauma of what he witnesses. It is cleverly done, and Jacob is a sympathetic protagonist to lead us around this murky underworld.

The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg (2016)

Onwards, to Elmwood Springs, Missouri, my final stop on November’s ‘fictional American towns’ tour. In the town cemetary, Still Meadows, strange things are happening, and, like a comic version of the Spoon River Anthology, which I read last month, the dead are not quite as quiet or still as one might expect. The story spans over a century, skipping through the generations with ease, starting Lordor Nordstrom, the town’s founder, and exploring his legacy down through the years.

The characters are mostly endearing, not very deep, and a lot of fun to follow. They aren’t necessarily believable, nor do they leave a lasting impression, but this was an entertaining, somewhat frivolous read that gives lots of warm and fuzzy feelings about community. A feel-good, old-fashioned book, harking back to simpler times, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.