Best Of 2019

Best of: April, and Some Thoughts on Reading Critically

A very colour-coordinated group today, but chosen on merit I promise! I read a lot more during April, mostly because of the Easter holidays, and also because I finished off a few books I’d been reading for a while. Again, it was very hard to choose, and I toyed with the idea of allowing myself a book from every category, but I’m already going to have 36 books on the list by the end of the year, and it could get very out of hand.

I realised something else too – I’m reading more than is useful. I really love booktube (if you don’t know what I mean, start here*), and I let myself get carried away by the idea that I NEED to read ALL those great books people are talking about. Also, good writing advice repeatedly tells me that I must be reading. But I’ve been edging towards quantity-over-quality territory. Read, yes, but read critically, is what the advice really means, and I’d forgotten that. I’m comfortable with reading poetry critically, but I’m newer to the idea of using critical reading to support my prose writing, and I hadn’t been doing it.

So I’m going to limit my reading to ten books a month, and I’m going to spend time each week on deeper reading. I had a steady work practice of copying out a poem each week and doing a critical analysis on it, and I’ve resumed that now that I’m writing poetry again. For prose, I’m also going to copy, it really is a very good way to really ‘see’ what it is you’re reading, and slow down for every word – do it by hand. I’ll probably do about three A4 pages and then change pen colour for analysis, picking a topic to focus on, e.g. looking at how description is used, or dialogue beats. Let me know if you do anything similar, or have come across good ideas in workshops.

So, on to the books…

Best novel: Milkman, by Anna Burns. I loved this from the first page, although I can definitely see why people would abandon it, or struggle to get through. The style really is a bit bonkers, but wonderful. The chapters are extremely long, and the narrative wanders off in directions that can’t really be called tangents – which suggests a straight line in another direction – think more like a bowl of ramen noodles. I found that I needed good chunks of time to read it in, not so much because I had to get into the right frame of mind, but because the side shoots wind on for pages and pages and I needed to get to the end of one before I could put it down. The central plot follows a teenager living in Northern Ireland in the Troubles, who attracts the attentions of a powerful member of the nationalists, but that storyline fills around half a dozen pages, and the book is really – in its tangents – about family, and communication (or lack of), and the various loyalties that you try to uphold but which always conflict because life is like that. Part of what drew me in was family connection; my husband’s parents left Belfast at the end of the sixties, and the young woman in Milkman could easily be my mother-in-law’s younger sister, so I found myself thinking a lot about whether her experience was similar. But really I just loved the style, the meanderings, the oddity of sentence structure and the very domestic details. I can’t do the image justice without spoilers, but for those who’ve read it, I’ll say that my very favourite part was the dancing – it just blew me away. If you tried this and couldn’t get on, and still would like to have read it, then I’ve heard from a few people that the audiobook is fantastic and makes it more accessible.

Best in translation/short: Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa. Another book by the same author – well, I didn’t make a rule about that, and I don’t think I will. Firstly, I think the title is odd, it’s not even the title of one of the stories in the collection and I have no idea why it was chosen. There is a bit of the theme running through some of them, but really, that word is dead, and boring, and doesn’t do the book justice. I plan to ask my friend if the Japanese title was different. These stories reminded me a bit of Kirsty Logan’s first collection, and a bit of Lucy Wood’s most recent collection. They are definitely creepy – there’s a woman who sets out to confront her husband’s mistress and ends up attending the death of a Bengal Tiger, and an old man who looks after a museum of torture instruments and keeps them in good working order… And with the creepiness comes Ogawa’s beautiful lyrical prose and wonderful images. I would read everything she writes in a heartbeat, which you would be able to see, if my heart was on the outside of my body like one of her characters.

Best poetry: Witch, by Rebecca Tam├ís. I ordered this book as soon as I heard about it, and expected to love it, I wasn’t disappointed. In her review on youtube, Jen Campbell mentioned that the lack of punctuation throughout meant that you can find yourself drawn through the book very quickly, and I did find that, I had to deliberately slow down for the second read. I gave up on trying to ‘understand’ the poems though, there are words and words and they don’t all make individual sense, but the overall impression is very strong. I know I liked this book, but I’m not quite sure why, as if it had some kind of subliminal (devil?) message written into it and carrying me along. There are lots of long lines and long stanzas, and it’s difficult to catch your breath, but that’s deliberate, adding a sense of threat. There are two main types of poems, poems where Witch is in conversation with someone or having some kind of experience, and spells (try them?). But my favourite parts were the two Interrogation pieces, they are just so odd and unsettling. “What is magic? // Picture an egg yolk, that huge yellow throw-up sun. / Dementedly shining, falling out of itself, birthed and / reverent.” The answers never match the questions, but are always exactly correct. If you like Liz Berry’s poetry, or Ted Hughes’s Crow, or anything fairytale/gothic/witchy, then this will be right up your street.

So that’s it for April, let me know if you’ve read, or are planning to read, any of these, if you have any favourite pink books, and what you plan to read in May. Dx

*And don’t blame me for what happens.