Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Blog Tour: The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso

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The Wellcome Book Prize 2019, which rewards exceptional works of literature that illuminate the many ways that health, medicine and illness touch our lives, marks the 10th anniversary of this prestigious award. Over the last decade, the prize has recognised an eclectic variety of titles from novels (Mend the Living, Maylis de Kerangal) to memoirs (The Iceberg, Marion Coutts) to popular science (It’s All in Your Head, Suzanne O’Sullivan). In 2019, the prize will celebrate this legacy and this extraordinary genre of books that add new meaning to life, death and everything in between.

I hugely enjoyed being a part of the Wellcome Book Prize Shadow Panel in 2018, so I was  thrilled to be asked to participate in the Wellcome 10th Anniversary Blog Tour. Along with Harriet Devine, I’ll be showcasing a title from the 2011 shortlist, which was as follows:

  • Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante [winner]
  • The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso
  • My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You by Louisa Young
  • Nemesis by Philip Roth
  • The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I’d only read one of these titles before – Patchett’s incredible State of Wonder – so I had a lot of fun deciding which title I wanted to review. In the end, I went for Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decaya memoir which chronicles her experience of living with CIDP (Chronic Idiopathic Demyelinating Polyradiculoneuropathy), which has been described as a chronic form of Guillain-Barre syndrome but, like many autoimmune diseases, is still poorly understood.

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Rather than attempting a chronological account of the nine years she spent suffering from CIPD, Manguso presents us with a series of arresting and disturbing vignettes. The first treatment she received for the condition, she explains, was apheresis, or the removal of her blood from her body in order to separate it into its constituent parts to allow the purging of the diseased part, which in her case, was the plasma. She was then reinfused with healthy plasma from a blood donor, a procedure that took four hours each time. This removed the antibodies secreted by her immune system that were destroying her healthy neurons and causing her symptoms, which included a creeping paralysis.

However, each time Manguso had to have the apheresis performed, she shook with cold, no matter how many heated blankets she covered herself with. Why?

The temperature in blood vessels is warmer than room temperature… I was very slowly infused with several liters of  fluid that was thirty degrees [F] colder than the rest of my body… the cold infusions went in very close to my heart. I need to describe that feeling, make a reader stop reading for a moment and think, Now I understand how cold it felt.

But I’m just going to say it felt like liquid, thirty degrees colder than my body, being infused slowly but directly into my heart, for four hours.

The plasma infusions also gave her a persistent chemical taste in her mouth: ‘there was nothing I could do to change the taste of it. It wasn’t touching the surface of my tongue… it was in my tongue.’ She found that only sucking on wintergreen candy throughout the course of the treatment gave her some relief.

Manguso’s brief glimpses into the world of her illness mean that The Two Kinds of Decay, unlike other chronic illness memoirs such as Porochista Khakpour’s Sickdoesn’t become repetitive but remains continually riveting. Manguso doesn’t try to draw together her experiences into some great message about life – even the title of her memoir remains somewhat oblique – but simply presents them to us, in prose that is totally and brilliantly boiled down.

Since publishing The Two Kind of Decay in 2008 (it wasn’t published in the UK until 2011, hence its eligibility for the Wellcome Book Prize of that year), Manguso has gone on to publish three more works of biographyThe Guardians (2012), Ongoingness (2015) and 300 Arguments (2017). I’m very glad to have been introduced to her writing.

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Some of my other favourite titles from past Wellcome shortlists are as follows [links to my reviews where they exist]:

Make sure to check out the other stops on the blog tour! And thanks to Charlotte at Midas PR for inviting me to participate in this tour and sending me a free copy of Two Kinds of Decay.

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Starting the year with speculative fiction

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Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks has been on my radar for a while, and I found it totally captivating. Set in 1857, it follows Merrick Tremayne, who was working for the East India Company until a leg injury meant he could no longer do his job. When he’s offered the chance to travel to Peru by his friend Clements Markham as part of an expedition to retrieve cuttings from cinchona trees, which produce the malaria-combating quinine, he feels he has to accept – especially as his family have a long history in the country. However, high in the Peruvian rainforest, Merrick encounters the eerie town of Bedlam, watched over by Incan markayuq – sacred statues – lit by luminescent pollen, and built around a river that boils and freezes by turns. Raphael, a Catholic priest, is his guide to this strange world, but nevertheless, Merrick keeps feeling that he’s missing something – especially when it comes to the line of salt that separates the cinchona plantation from the town of Bedlam, and which he’s told he must not cross.

The Bedlam Stacks recalls a eclectic tangle of previous stories, including Doctor Who’s ‘Blink’, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, with a bit of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow thrown in for good measure. However, this merely increases its resonance rather than making it feel in any way derivative. Pulley brilliantly draws the reader into a world where we’re genuinely unsure what is fact and what is fantasy, mediated by the unfamiliarity of the setting and Merrick’s own limited understanding and colonial gaze. While I’m by no means an expert on any of this, I did quite a bit of research on nineteenth-century Peru, including reading some of Markham’s travel writing, for a now-abandoned novel project, and also spent a month or so in the country almost ten years ago now. I was hugely impressed by the depth of Pulley’s knowledge, which goes way beyond the things you learn quite quickly as a tourist in Peru, and how cleverly she deploys it in the novel.

Before reading The Bedlam Stacks, I was worried that it might become a little ‘white man goes on an adventure in strange foreign climes’, but Pulley’s writing, while not overtly discussing power structures, probes these kind of narratives in a way I’ve rarely seen done in fiction, although there are a number of academic histories that do this well. In short, Pulley gets the fact that rational explanations for phenomena change depending on who you are, rather than writing off non-Western beliefs as superstitious or naive. She sums this up in a brilliant passage near the end of the book, which I can’t quote because it spoils a central twist, but which uses the metaphor of translation (a key theme throughout the book, as the characters switch between English, Spanish and Quechua) to get at this cultural disconnect. Oh, and there’s also an incredibly moving love story and genuinely funny banter. HIGHLY recommended. It’s the first book I read this year, but, nevertheless, it will surely be a contender for my top ten books of 2019.

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Revelation Space, which was Alistair Reynolds’s debut novel back in 2000, kickstarted a trilogy, and has since been republished in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. It appealed to me because it sounded like the same kind of fun, sweeping space opera as James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, and to an extent, I was right, although I’d say Revelation Space leans more towards the ‘harder’ end of SF. The novel starts with archaeologist Dan Sylveste, having returned, perhaps permanently altered, from the mysterious alien Shroud, investigating the sudden demise of the Amarantin civilisation. A second thread follows Ilia Volyova, part of a Triumvirate who rules over a vast spaceship, who is determined to capture Sylveste and his father’s AI simulation so she can heal the Captain of their ship, who is suffering from a Melding Plague that afflicts both human flesh and its technological implants. Finally, Ana Khouri, a hired assassin, has been planted on the ship by a mysterious entity called Mademoiselle, who wants to see Sylvester dead.

Revelation Space is definitely an entertaining read, and Reynolds engages intelligently with the conventions of the genre, but I found myself a little frustrated by his writing style. Each chapter switches at least once between all three of his protagonists, and Reynolds seems determined to end each section on a cliffhanger, which stops feeling organic and urgent and starts feeling Goosebumps-level cheesy after he does it for the hundredth time, especially as he has a tendency to really underline the tension:

There’s something Khouri and I need to discuss with all of you. It concerns Cerberus.”

Sylveste looked scornful. “What do you know about Cerberus?”

Too much,” Khouri said. “Too damned much.”

This structure also means that the novel is absolutely packed with twists, which makes it longer than it needs to be, and, ironically, means that the really clever switchbacks fall with less force than they should, as the characters are stunned by new information every other page. Reynolds’s excessively cerebral writing also undermined my investment in all his protagonists; I found myself engaging with them more as Machiavellian rational actors* than as human beings. This kept me going, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to get the next in the trilogy.

*I know this is a mixed metaphor

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I was utterly absorbed by Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel, The Sparrow, which followed Emilio Sandoz, genius linguist and sole survivor of a Jesuit mission to a distant alien planet, as he deals with reliving the trauma of what happened to him there. So I was keen to get hold of Children of God, its sequel, as quickly as possible. Children of God picks up pretty much where The Sparrow left off, as Emilio tries to rebuild his life on Earth, leaving the priesthood, meeting a woman, and acquiring a guinea pig. However, the Society of Jesus is preparing another mission to Rakat – and they want Emilio to be part of it, even though he’s refused to ever go back to the planet. Parallel threads follow the stories of Supaari VaGayjur, a Jana’ata who initially befriended and then abused Emilio during the previous mission to Rakat, and a burgeoning resistance movement among the second alien species on Rakat, the Runa, who are subjugated by the Jana’ata.

While The Sparrow‘s plot was propelled irresistibly forward by the central mystery of what happened to Emilio’s mission, Children of God is inevitably more reflective, exploring how Emilio tries to renegotiate his relationship with God and with other human beings after what he suffered, and, on Rakat, examining how social norms can be  resisted and overturned. Unlike The Sparrow, which had an especially rich ensemble cast, Children of God is dominated by a couple of protagonists, most notably Emilio, whose struggles with his maimed hands root him firmly in the physical world even as he deals with the most abstract of questions. For me, it was a weaker novel solely because it deals much more squarely with the Jana’ata and the Runa; the sketchy world-building that sufficed in The Sparrow doesn’t really become any more solid, and these chapters feel like reading a middle-of-the-road fantasy novel. However, Emilio’s arc, as we see how he starts to rebuild the wreck of his life, is both gripping and necessary, and it’s worth reading the novel for that alone.

The Last 10 Books Tag

I’ve seen this popping up everywhere, but most recently at Annabel’s blog.

The last book I gave up on

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. I wanted to read about people climbing Everest, but when I realised that a substantial amount of this doorstopper was about the First World War, I stopped reading it. I’ve read a lot of historiography on the experience of the war, and its myth and memory, for work, and so revising this just isn’t that fun for me.

The last book I re-read

Abhorsen by Garth Nix. If you haven’t read this creepy, atmospheric YA quartet, which starts with Sabriel, you really ought to. Nix brings his fantasy universe, peopled by necromancers, seers and animate corpses, vividly to life, and he wrote about a kingdom divided by a Wall behind which the dead walk before George R. R. Martin did.

The last book I bought

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. I thought it was fabulous and will be reviewing it here soon.

The last book I said I read but actually didn’t

I can’t remember ever doing this. Unless I’ve done it by accident? I perhaps have claimed to have read Bleak House when I’ve only read half of it, but that was enough for a lifetime.

The last book I wrote in the margins of

Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch. A popular, conservative-ish history of education in twentieth-century America. I write in all the academic books I own.

The last book I had signed

Solar by Ian McEwan. I never have books signed for myself, so got this signed as a present for my mum several years back. My impression of McEwan was not favourable.

The last book I lost

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. This childhood favourite was sadly left on a train, and I must get round to buying a new copy. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna for grown-ups.

The last book I had to replace

Freeze Tag by Caroline B. Cooney. This Point Horror classic really isn’t very good, but I wanted it for inspiration for my current work-in-progress. It turns out the best thing about it is the cover and the title, and my teenage self was quite right to get rid of my previous copy.

The last book I argued over

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I really couldn’t get on with this at all, finding it shallow and a bit ridiculous, but many fellow members of my creative writing group loved it.

The last book I couldn’t find

My treasured chick lit collection, c. 2005-c.2010, including many titles by Lindsey Kelk, Harriet Evans and Miranda Dickinson. My dad found these books for me hiding in a box after I explained the concept of I Heart…  to him. (‘You mean it’s called ‘I Love New York?’ ‘No, I Heart New York.’ ‘A book can’t be called that.’)

2019 Reading Plans

2018 started better than it went on, but has still been a pretty good year for me. After a number of full MS requests and revise-and-resubmits, my time-travel novel is now out with another batch of literary agents, and I’ve (just!) started my Antarctic-set novel after finishing Tim Clare’s incredibly helpful Couch to 80k podcast series. I bought my first flat, in Newcastle, and started my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Queen Mary University of London. I finished the manuscript of my first academic monograph, A Progressive Education?and have received the final set of edits, which are very constructive and useful. I travelled to France and also finally fulfilled a long-held dream by returning to the US, where I spent five years of my childhood, travelling to Providence, New York, Boston and my old home city, DC.

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In less impressive but personally satisfying goals, I have learnt how to bleed radiators, put together many pieces of flatpack furniture, and how some bits of Newcastle connect together. I have watched 32 new films this year (my goal was 50, but never mind), trying to address my habit of rewatching the same things over and over. I’ve pretty much kept my New Year’s resolution of exercising four times a week, focusing on swimming and yoga (my other New Year’s resolutions didn’t turn out quite so well).

I’ve made a list of 30 books I want to read in 2019, and am going to highlight a few 2019 releases I’m particularly excited about:

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Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams ed., A People’s Future of the United States (February 2019). This collection of short speculative fiction, riffing off the title of Howard Zinn’s 1980 A People’s History of the United Stateswhich attacked glorified ‘manifest destiny’ interpretations of American history, showcases stories that ‘challenge oppressive American myths’. With contributions from N.K. Jemisin, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Charlie Jane Anders, Omar El Akkad and more, it sounds fantastic.

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Lisa See: The Island of Sea Women (March 2019). I’ve enjoyed a number of See’s earlier novels, which tend to foreground close female friendships (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in nineteenth-century China, China Dolls in WWII America). The Island of Sea Women focuses on two Korean female divers, Mi-ja and Young-sook, over several decades, beginning in the 1930s.

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Nell Freudenberger: Lost and Wanted (April 2019). I’ve actually never read anything by Freudenberger, but her latest sounds irresistible. The protagonist is a theoretical physicist, Helen, who starts receiving calls and texts from a friend who’s just died.

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Ted Chiang: Exhalation (May 2019). Chiang’s previous collection of SF short stories, Stories of Your Life and Otherswas incredibly imaginative and intellectually engaging, so I’m expecting no less from this new collection. Highlights include a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad encountering a portal through time, and an alien scientist making a startling discovery.

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Chia-Chia Lin: The Unpassing (May 2019). I’m intrigued by this debut, which follows an immigrant family of six struggling to make ends meet on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Lin has already published a number of short stories.

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Colson Whitehead: The Nickel Boys (July 2019). After the success of The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s next novel will be eagerly anticipated by many. I was disappointed by one of his earlier books, Zone One, but am still keen to read this, which follows two boys sentenced to a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

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Téa Obreht: Inland (August 2019). I loved Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, so much; it’s my favourite of all the Orange/Baileys/Women’s Prize for Fiction winners that I’ve read. But it’s been so long since 2011, and I was delighted to hear that she finally has another book coming. Inland sounds EPIC; it’s set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, focusing on the collision between a frontierswoman, Nora, and an outlaw, Lurie. Obreht, according to her publishers, ‘subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely – and unforgettably – her own.’

I hope you’ve all had a lovely New Year!

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The Rest of the List

Leftover from 2018

George Sandison ed.: 2084

Nina Allen: The Rift

Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion

Clarissa Goenawan: Rainbirds

New Entries

Jeff Vandermeer: Annihilation

Rebecca Loncraine: Skybound

Sally Rooney: Normal People

Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room

Anna Burns: Milkman

Allegra Goodman: The Chalk Artist

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black

Robin Talley: Pulp

Marie Lu: Warcross

Tayari Jones: The Untelling

Joseph Camara: The House of Impossible Beauties

Uzodinma Iweala: Beasts of No Nation

Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock (September 2019)

Ellen Feldman: Terrible Virtue

Robin Oliveira: Winter Sisters

Emily Bernard: Black Is The Body (January 2019)

Samantha Harvey: All Is Song

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Lisa Ko: The Leavers

My Top Ten Books of 2018

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

In no particular order…

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1. Speak No Evil: Uzodinma Iweala. Iweala’s second novel tells, at first glance, a very familiar story. Teenage Niru is quietly trying to fit in at an upscale DC school, although he’s set apart by being both black and gay. But its brilliance comes from Iweala’s experimental literary style, blending Niru’s dialogue and interior monologue in a way that captures his voice and yet makes complete sense to the reader. Iweala’s debut, Beasts of No Nation, is definitely on my TBR list for 2019. Speak No Evil was a NetGalley discovery, and I reviewed it here.

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2. Bookworm: Lucy Mangan. How much did I adore this engrossing memoir, in which journalist Lucy Mangan takes us on a tour of the books she loved in childhood and adolescence? Along the way, she also writes hilariously and delightfully about herself and her family. I’ve already given this as a gift to two friends. This was picked up after reading so many positive reviews of it from other bloggers, and I reviewed it here.

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3. The Western WindSamantha Harvey. This was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and it didn’t disappoint. I already knew Harvey was an incredible writer, but in this novel, she manages to write with impressive historical empathy about the late medieval mindset, narrating in the voice of a village priest, John Reve, investigating the murder of one of his flock. The novel is told backwards, but, as Reve teases out the truth in the final pages, it ends up becoming almost a circle, mirroring how fifteenth-century villagers might have thought about time.  I also loved Harvey’s Dear Thief when I read it, and I’ll have to check out her back catalogue in 2019; All Is Song looks especially intriguing. I reviewed The Western Wind here.

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4. Let Go My Hand: Edward Docx. This was one of my 20 Books of Summer, and while it’s the third of Docx’s novels I’ve read, it’s the first one that really blew me away. Louis journeys with his terminally ill father, Larry, towards Switzerland so Larry can end his life at Dignitas. When Louis’s two older half-brothers, Ralph and Jack, turn up, Docx takes us back through their complicated family history as well as unpicking the way they relate to each other now. Let Go My Hand is one of those very unusual books that manage to be both genuinely funny and profoundly moving. It’s been unfairly overlooked by most critics, and I can’t recommend it enough. I reviewed it here.

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5. The Growing Season: Helen Sedgwick. In a year packed with speculative re-imaginings of pregnancy, child-bearing and motherhood, The Growing Season easily stood out for me. Sedgwick imagines a world where babies are now nurtured in artificial wombs, installed in wearable pouches, and getting pregnant in the old-fashioned way is stigmatised. Sedgwick’s narrative is admirably even-handed, refusing to present this technological advance as either dystopian or as straightforwardly liberatory, and the result is a consistently thought-provoking, moving and gripping piece of speculative fiction. The Growing Season was another of my 20 Books of Summer, and I reviewed it here.

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6. Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday. Also on my 20 Books of Summer list, Halliday’s courageous debut faces questions about fiction and authenticity head-on, even though it begins on cliched ground, as a young writer, Alice, starts an affair with a much older writer, Ezra. I reviewed it here.

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7. Melmoth: Sarah Perry. I didn’t really love either After Me Comes The Flood or The Essex Serpentbut I was captivated by this Calvinist horror story about sin, regret and redemption. Perry creates a terrifying female figure called Melmoth the Wanderer (based on Charles Maturin’s 1820 Gothic novel), who wanders through history seeking out lost souls and bearing witness to acts of unspeakable evil. I reviewed Melmoth here.

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8. Leaving Atlanta: Tayari Jones. Jones’s latest novel, An American Marriagehas received a lot of attention this year, especially after being named by Obama as one of his summer reads. However, I was even more impressed by her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which I chose for my book group in November. The novel is set in Atlanta in 1979, when dozens of African-American children were going missing. Narrated from the perspective of three fifth-graders, it uses this particular tragedy to say broader things about the fears that  black children internalise as they approach adolescence. I’m now keen to read more by Jones, and The Untelling is up next. I wrote briefly about Leaving Atlanta here.

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9. The OverstoryRichard Powers. Powers’s Booker-shortlisted novel takes nine protagonists and sets them in relation to the fight to stop the remnants of ancient American forests being destroyed. Despite deliberately reducing the significance of humanity in light of a much longer natural history and the destruction we’re wreaking on the planet, it also presents a number of closely observed portraits of individuals. Lots of recent books have brought up the scientific hypothesis that trees talk to each other, but The Overstory makes the best use of it. Powers has a big backlist, and I think I’ll try The Echo Maker next. I reviewed The Overstory here.

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10. The Boat People: Sharon Bala. Bala’s debut starts with a group of Sri Lankan refugees arriving in Canada in 2009, and flips between three first-person perspectives: Mahindan, a refugee; Japanese-Canadian Grace, charged with adjudicating the refugees’ asylum claims; and second-generation Sri Lankan lawyer Priya. The Boat People is thoughtful and authentic, raising similar questions to Melmoth about our own moral limits, although in a less explicitly horrific way. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 155 books in 2018. This sets a new record for me, smashing my 2017 total of 127. Next year, I’ll set a target of 125 – I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to keep outdoing the previous year’s total.

I read 39 books by men and 116 by women. This has been the worst year yet for men, making up only 25% of the books I read. I’m not especially interested in setting any targets for reading male authors but I note that, as usual, men are slightly over-represented in my Top Ten books, making up 30% of the list. I’d like to continue seeking out books by male authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, and try and discover some new ones.

I read 44 books by writers of colour and 111 books by white writers. As in previous years, I’ve read more books by writers of colour than ever before, but my percentages only inch up very slowly. 28% of the books I read this year were by writers of colour (as compared to 25% in 2017 and 15% in 2016). I’m going to set a more achievable target for this year, and try and get that 28% to 33%, or one-third of all books I read.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books:

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2018 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2018 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2018, not necessarily first published in 2018.

Highly Commended

The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was especially strong this year, and there were lots of standout titles for me. I’ll focus on my two favourites here. Fiona Mozley’s Elmetwhich was shortlisted for the Booker but inexplicably failed to make the Women’s Prize shortlist, is mesmerisingly good on femininity and masculinity, and the close connections of a single family to rural Yorkshire. Jessie Greengrass’s shortlisted Sight mixes auto-fiction with historic interludes that cover the detection of X-rays, the psychoanalytical work of Anna Freud and a nineteenth-century Scottish surgeon. I was blown away by Greengrass’s precise and brilliant meditations on pregnancy and early motherhood.

I read two excellent short story collections: Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Onesset between 1993 and 2013 in Colombia, New York and DC, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, one of my 20 Books of Summer, which is a series of sketches of young middle-class black lives in present-day America. Pachico deals brilliantly with the intersection between imagination and reality, whereas Thompson-Spires’s satirical narratives are delightfully vivid and larger-than-life.

2018 wasn’t as strong a year for memoir and non-fiction as 2017, but three books stood out: Xiaolu Guo’s Once Upon A Time In The East and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,  neither of which I’ve reviewed on this blog, and Nancy Campbell’s The Library of IceGuo’s account of her childhood and adolescence in China is riveting, much more engaging than any of her novels. Campbell eschews autobiography to seek out ice in all of its forms, from a remote Greenlandic community to a curling rink in Scotland, successfully reinventing the overstuffed ‘polar memoir’ genre. Persepolis, one of the only graphic novels I’ve read, brilliantly and succinctly conveys Satrapi’s experience growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution.

Two historical novels stood out. Lissa Evans’s wonderful Old Baggageset in the late 1920s, stars Mattie, a once-militant suffragette who wonders what she should do with her life now. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies proved to be a comedic and moving take on gay male lives in Britain since 1945.

Finally, I enjoyed two novels that might broadly be called speculative. Mary Doria Russell’s eerie and unforgettable The Sparrow deals with a Jesuit mission to make contact with an alien race. I got its sequel, Children of God, for Christmas, and can’t wait to start it. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, about a man isolated in the Arctic winter, hasn’t been reviewed on this blog but is an absolute model of how to write a horror story. Don’t read it alone in the dark.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

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Michael Donkor’s Hold, dealing with a teenage Ghanian housegirl, Belinda, who comes to London in 2002 to deal with a disobedient relative of the family she works for, Amma, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018. Unfortunately, I found Donkor’s writing laborious and convoluted, and his dialogue was so doggedly ‘authentic’ as to be almost unreadable.

Both Omar El Akkad’s American War and Angela Chadwick’s XX had great premises. American War is set in the aftermath of a second civil war that has torn apart America, creating a refugee crisis. XX imagines a world where two women can have their own biological child together, opening up new possibilities for lesbian couples. However, most of American War played out like a cliched dystopian novel, whereas XX never moved beyond simplistic moral messages, refusing to explore the full implications of its imagined future. Two missed opportunities.

I was also disappointed by two authors whose novels I’d enjoyed in the past. Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days was a gripping and original literary thriller, but her latest, Bitter Orange, about a lonely, middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a glamorous younger couple during a summer spent in a country house, felt so hackneyed, and had such an unpleasant narrator, that I gave up a third of the way in, and haven’t reviewed it here. Having loved Amy Sackville’s first two novels, The Still Point and Orkney, I couldn’t wait to read her latest, Painter to the Kingwhich deals with the painter Diego Velázquez at the court of Philip IV of Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century. However, it felt more like an extended writing exercise than a novel, focusing intently on the visuals with little psychological probing into the mindsets of her characters.

I’ll be back on Monday with my Top Ten Books of 2018!

 

 

Three Things… December 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

I’m trying to finish off my TBR pile before Christmas to make room for new acquisitions. Having very much enjoyed Tayari Jones’s An American MarriageI’m now tearing through her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which deals with the real-life disappearance of dozens of African-American children in Atlanta in 1979. Told from the perspective of three black fifth-graders, the novel is both gripping and beautifully observed; Jones captures the eleven-year-old mindset perfectly. Her narrators range from middle-class Tasha, who is desperately concerned about getting a pink party invitation with a magenta heart sticker from the most popular girl in her class, but is also dealing with her parents’ separation and becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of the outside world, to Octavia, a ‘project kid’ on a reduced lunch voucher who is also expert at reading the dynamics of the classroom. Jones also pulls off the difficult trick of moving from first to second to third person as she skips between her narrators. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, about four Nigerian brothers who receive a curse from a local madman, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, and on a line-by-line level, it’s easy to see why; Obioma’s prose is clever and distinctive. However, the density of the writing and the reliance on flashbacks keeps the reader at arms length, and I found that this was a novel I admired rather than enjoyed. I abandoned Kim Sherwood’s Testament after realising that I’m not sure I can read any more Holocaust novels; it prompted similar thoughts to Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in WinterFinally, I’m hoping to start my book club’s latest choice, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, as I head home, which should see me hitting my Goodreads target of 150 books read in 2018.

Watching

free-solo

I saw the documentary Free Solo at Tyneside Cinema last week, which recounts Alex Honnold’s climb up the 3000-foot high El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley without any rope or safety equipment. Filming this feat was a massive achievement in itself, as the film makes clear – not only did the crew have to handle the logistics of capturing the key moments of Honnold’s climb, they had to reckon with the risk that their presence would put him off his game and lead him to fall to his death. The sheer danger of Honnold’s undertaking can hardly be overestimated: one fellow climber describes it as taking a shot at an Olympic gold medal, but if you fail, you die. I’m fascinated by the psychology that leads people to take such risks with their lives, but this goes far beyond even other extreme sports such as freediving. The footage from the morning of Alex’s attempt is acutely uncomfortable to watch, as the crew put on a false joviality, as if Alex is doing no more than attempting a Ninja Warrior obstacle course, whereas you can see many of them are thinking that this might be the last time they speak to him.

In the face of this, I started to wonder if Free Solo itself was unethical, glorifying a feat that is actually profoundly unhealthy. Honnold suggests in the documentary that he’s driven by the idea, instilled in childhood, that he can never be good enough. However, I think there’s a subtlety in the composition of this piece that allows these questions to be raised. Although Honnold values success rather than happiness (‘anyone can be happy and cozy’, he says at one point), the nature of free solo climbs mean they are usually accomplished out of the spotlight, with nobody watching. Seeing Honnold’s climb as either glorious or as idiotic is to simplify it. Honnold’s commitment to a (probably shortened) life of free soloing is his own response to mortality; akin to free diving, he likes the freedom of this kind of climbing, the fact that he’s only relying on himself, and the simplicity and speed of the ascent. However, the problems start when he establishes human ties as well; his serious relationship with a girlfriend feels like an unfair commitment for him to have taken on, even though he’s perfectly honest with her about his intention to continue free soloing. I can’t stop thinking about Free Solo, and the shots of Honnold’s ascent alone make it worth seeing.

Thinking

Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 12.28.18

Even though I essentially get paid to think, I always struggle to remember anything I’ve actually thought once I get to this section! So I’m going to write about where I do a lot of my thinking: either on walks in Jesmond Dene, in the swimming pool, or in yoga classes. One new version of the above that I’ve taken up recently is hot yoga, with classes in Newcastle run by Hotpod Yoga, a franchise which has bases all over the country. Before I did a trial membership at Hotpod, I was convinced that hot yoga was not for me, despite having practised normal yoga for eight years. I struggle when the temperature outside gets above 30 C (in the pods, it’s set at 37 C) and never go in saunas.

However, I’m a surprised convert. Hotpod offer three difficulty levels, of which I’ve tried two: the mid-range ‘normal’ Hotpod class is basically a vinyasa flow class in the pod, whereas Nurturing Flow is a much slower and more restorative practice, especially good for when you’re aching from other activity. Turns out, when you’re geared up to get sweaty, it isn’t that bad – I find the purple atmosphere wonderfully relaxing, and it’s a great escape from northern weather. Although I have been doing yoga for so long, I’m not very good at it – I’m not naturally bendy – and Hotpod also helps a bit with my inflexible muscles.

This will be my last post before Christmas. I’ve got some exciting festive reading lined up, including Laura Purcell’s The Corset, Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affairand I’ll be back at the end of December with a couple of posts on the year’s reading. Hope that you all have a relaxing break!