My Best Books of 2019

It's been a bookish year for me. In September of last year, I became a 'tumbleweed' at the famous Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris, volunteering my time for a few hours per day in exchange for my bed, and so, naturally, while I've always been an avid reader, my hunger for books became even more voracious. As the year draws to an end, I'm looking back at my favourite books that I have read this year.

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giorno

Let’s begin with a short one. Translated from French, the edition of The Man who planted Trees, that I read was only 43 pages. 43 beautifully illustrated pages, with artwork by Harry Brockway. I devoured this lovely little short story in a single sitting, and by the last page, I felt warm and fuzzy inside. The premise is simple; a shepherd man takes it upon himself to quietly begin planting trees, in the foothills of the Alps, in an effort to reforest the landscape which he calls home. He does this over the course of 50 years, and gradually, his forest grows and the landscape blooms. With so much for us to be concerned about climate change and environmentalism, it was really heartwarming to read a story depicting how big a change one person can achieve if we put our minds to it.

Mothers by Chris Power

Sometimes I spend months impatiently anticipating a release date, reserving a copy to be sure that I can begin reading from the moment my local bookshop opens its doors. Then there are times when I stumble across a gem, when I notice a beautiful cover (I know, I know, but we all judge a book by its cover, don’t we?), on a library shelf, and I’ll realise that I’ve discovered something very special. This is such a book.

A collection of short stories in which the common theme is that every character finds themselves at a crossroads in life, it is a collection about seeking the unknown, searching for purpose, and living a life of uncertainty. How many of us can truly say that we know exactly what we want in life? These crossroads often bring them to literal metaphorical locations; bridges, rivers, and sites which linger in the recess of memory. Three stories of the collection follow a single character; Eva, as we watch her grow from daughter to wife, to mother, and her perpetual search for self. It is her stories which, in my opinion, were the most beautifully crafted.

 

The Dubliners by James Joyce

A classic I'd somehow never read, Joyce's The Dubliners was his first book, published in 1914. A collection of short stories, they depict a blunt, witty view of middle-class Dublin-life in the early 20th century. Recommended to me by a dear friend, I found myself devouring these short stories, reading many several times, and finding myself a converted fan as I fell in love with Joyce's style of writing. Toted often as a must-read book for anyone who wishes to write, and write well, I can well understand why. The stories are rich and unflinching, telling of the unattractive side of human behavior: drunkenness, child and spousal abuse, gambling, prostitution, petty thievery, blackmail, and suicide. James Joyce himself wrote, regarding his work,

"I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that . . . paralysis which many consider a city."

While a precedent existed for Joyce's stark approach to writing; the nineteenth-century Naturalism movement, no writer had ever been quite as explicit, or as relentlessly downbeat, as Joyce in Dubliners.

The Outsider by Albert Camus

There are certain books which a bookworm in Paris simply must read, and Camus' arguably most famous novel, The Outsider (also translated as The Stranger), is one of them. Long considered to be Camus' masterpiece, I can read this short novel again and again.

Camus's Algiers-set tale of an emotionless office worker for whom inertia seems to be the default. After he is unwittingly drawn into the killing of an Arab on the beach he is subsequently sentenced to death for refusing to express regret. This is a philosophical exploration of what Camus called "the tender indifference of the world", and an examination of what he termed "the nakedness of man faced with the absurd." How ironic that our actions can continue to carry such consequence in a world void of meaning.

The opening line of this novel is one that will stay with me for some time:

"Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know."

Loving by Henry Green

Another to have made it onto my list of favourite books, is Loving by Henry Green. I only recently discovered Green, and I quickly fell in love with his writing. Even when speaking with staff at my favourite Paris bookshop, hardly anyone had heard of him, and yet countless authors, including Evelyn Waugh, John Updike and Rebecca West, each considered him to be a genius. Loving is most often toted as his masterpiece, and it was the first of his nine novels which I picked up, and I have to say, so far, I agree. 

Not a particularly plot-driven novel, we follow the characters, particularly the servants of a country manor house in Ireland. Both the family and their staff are predominantly British, and so the tensions of the time (WW2 being our setting) are simmering away in the background as our characters spend the war in neutral Ireland, with the constant fear of what it means to be English in Ireland. They are stewing in the great house, and we stew alongside them, watching their concerns grow as rumours of the war reach them, and yet they are cut off, as though stranded. Simmering tensions rise with the guilt of not fighting, or of not enduring the Blitz with relatives, yet nor are they safe in Ireland, and, ultimately, it’s a novel of uncertainty, hesitation and resignation.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Few can’t have heard of Colson Whitehead, who, while it was not his first novel, blazed his way onto our mainstream bookshelves with his 2016 gem of a novel, The Underground RailroadIn fact, it was preceded by five novels, four essay collections, a short story collection, and a book on the history of New York, but it could arguably be said that it was The Underground Railroad which had Whitehead’s name on everybody’s lips. When his latest novel, The Nickel Boys was announced, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

Based on the sordid and tragic history of the infamous reform school, the Florida School for Boys, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a school notorious throughout its 111-year history for its deplorable treatment of students. Decades of reports of abuse, including allegations of a ‘rape dungeon’, resulted in the discovery of 27 ‘possibly’ graves on the school grounds. So far, at least 55 bodies have been found on the site of the school.

The Dozier School is openly the inspiration for the novel’s ‘The Nickel Academy’, set during the Jim Crow era, and Whitehead plunges headfirst into the abuse allegations, depicting them unflinchingly, brutally, graphically, as we following a promising young student as his life is turned upside down and he finds himself sentenced to a juvenile reformatory; The Nickel Academy. We see just how easy it is for the future of a young black boy to be destroyed in 1960s America, against a racist system designed to abuse and corruption.

With an ending which will leave you reeling, Whitehead perfectly depicts another terrible era of American history, leaving us all wondering just how much things have actually changed, and how easily we could return to the past.

 

The Patrick Melrose Series by Edward St. Aubyn

I loved this series so much, I’ve included it in my list of favourite reads of all time. Nevertheless, I can’t seem to stop talking about it, and so let me elaborate now (unless you’re really in a hurry, in which case I suggest following the link above).

The Patrick Melrose series has been on my radar for a while, having long been toted as one of the greatest British literary series of modern-day. However, it took me a few attempts before I was actually able to get into it. I think it was the opening chapters in which young five-year-old Patrick is our narrator. I think it can be a challenge for an adult author to realistically portray a young child from the first person (I noticed that I struggled also with the first half a dozen chapter of book four, Mother’s milk, which is narrated by *minor spoiler alert*, Patrick’s five-year-old son… and then there was my painful struggle with Ian McEwan’s Nutshell), and I found St Aubyn’s five-year-old Patrick wobbly, and five-year-old Robert irritating, it’s a small matter compared to the tears of laughter which propelled me through the next almost 900 pages, 5 book epic. St Aubyn is fiercely intelligent and as witty as Jane Austen, if Jane Austen had written about a raging addiction to hard drugs, the lifelong scars left by childhood sexual abuse, and parents so terrible, they make Mrs. Bennet look like Lorelai Gilmore.

We follow Patrick Melrose through each book, from Never Mind, which depicts the drug-addled days of his twenties, he, tight in the grasp of heroin addiction, his abusive father recently deceased, to At Last, written some twenty years later, with Patrick having aged likewise, and we come full circle, as he buries his mother and comes to terms with her complexities and failings as a parent. These semi-autobiographical novels, based on St Aubyn’s own life, terrible childhood abuse at the hands of his own father, and consequential addiction, takes us through addiction, recovery, marriage, parenthood, divorce, sickness, deterioration, death and grief. It’s philosophical without preaching, analytical without feeling like an overpriced therapy session. It pulls you in by the lungs and holds you there, and I know that these books will stay with me, always.

The Accusation by 'Bandi'

Smuggled out of North Korea, The Accusation is the work of an anonymous author, known by the pseudonym ‘Bandi’. This collection of seven short stories, written in the 1980s and 90s, tells of life under the totalitarian regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

The Accusation depicts ordinary men and women facing the horrors of life in a police state: a factory supervisor caught between loyalty to an old friend and loyalty to the regime; a woman struggling to feed her husband through the great famine; the staunch Party man whose actor son reveals to him the absurd theatre of their reality; a mother raising her child in a world where the all-pervasive propaganda is the stuff of nightmare.

This book is a heartbreaking portrayal of everyday life in North Korea, yet a reminder that humanity can sustain hope even in the most desperate of circumstances. While I sometimes found the writing quite dry, I put this down to the translation; although excellent, is not without its flaws.

Many of us are somewhat fascinated by North Korea, on of the most secretive and mysterious countries in the world, and a place so far removed from our own ideas, beliefs, values and political structure, we can hardly imagine what it would be like to live under such a regime. These stories will fascinate from the onset for their blunt, bleak, and heart-wrenching tales.

I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Kingsley, a chemical engineering graduate in Nigeria, is confident that he is destined for a successful, comfortable life; he is engaged to the beautiful Ola, he is from a loving, supportive, honest, if poor family, and it is surely only a matter of time before he finds a good engineering career. Right?

Nevertheless, the job market is scarce and it matters more who you know than what you know. Ola eventually decides that she cannot wait any longer for him to start a career and calls time on their relationship, and after his father falls gravely ill, the responsibility to provide for his family falls on Kingsley’s shoulders. He turns to his only wealthy relative, the mysterious ‘Cash Daddy’, for help, and soon finds himself swept up in his uncle’s business – running email scams.

This is a hilarious satire of the ups and downs of Nigerian life.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

After hearing author Valeria Luiselli talk about her novel and read an excerpt, I knew that I had to read it. And, for sure, I was not disappointed. Lost Children Archive is a novel about Mexico, a place I know little of besides quesadillas, Dias de los Muertos, and Frida Kahlo. That, and, of course, the pledged wall of Donald Trump’s political campaigns, and the trail of migration the President plans to put a very literal stop to.

It is the latter topic which, for the past three years, has most frequently passed lips at the mention of Mexico. We’ve all seen news features on the ‘migrant train’, as thousands flee the violent street gangs, poverty, war and corruption of their South and Latin American home countries in search of a better life in the USA, and Mexican-born, NYC-based Luiselli hones in with a cutting gaze on this current, very real humanitarian crisis. Lost Children Archive is her second book focusing on child migration between the Mexican-American border (the first being her essay collection, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In 40 Questions). It is, needless to say, a topic that weighs heavy in her mind.

A nameless family of four takes a road trip from New York to the borderlines of Arizona. The couple’s marriage is falling apart, a fissure growing between them throughout their trip, as they undertake their separate projects; his, about the Native American Apache tribes, and hers, about the current immigration crisis on the Mexico-USA border. The parents tell the children tales of the Apaches and listen to the news of the migrant crisis on the radio. The children understand more than their parents realise. They drink in the stories, the audiobooks, and the boy, at least, can sense that this will be their last trip together as a family.

Eventually, the children decide to leave their parents in search of the lost migrant children, and venture into the desert, leaving behind a map of their planned route. From then, we predominantly follow the children for the remains of the novel, through the eyes of the boy, on their adventure, riding trains, and sleeping beneath the stars. In one particularly brilliant piece of writing, when the children are at their height of a heat-induced delirium, Luiselli unfurls a stunningly constructed, stream-of-consciousness sentence, spanning 20 pages, as seering as it is lethargic.

The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen

Finally, I stumbled across this unofficial trilogy quite by chance, when I spotted half a bookshelf in my favourite bookshop dominated by a row of beautiful pale pink spines. Climbing the ladder to investigate, I discovered a new favourite author, the Danish writer, Tove Ditlevsen. Autobiographical, these short novellas tell of Ditlevsen's childhood in a poor, working-class neighbourhood in Copenhagen, her flourishing career as a writer from a young age, her multiple marriages (she married and divorced four times), and her struggle with drug addiction. Harsh, sharp and darkly witty, these novels show us the tortured mind of a truly gifted writer. Only translated to English this year, I hope that the rest of Ditlevsen's works will soon follow.

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